Sexy Marketing Aims to Boost Toilet Use

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The woman sings "You're a great husband for giving me this well," and he responds "I gave it to you because I love you." They go on to sing about the dangers of arsenic—a potentially carcinogenic, naturally occurring element—in drinking water.

"Many villagers [in Cambodia] can't read and think of waterborne diseases as part of life," said the video's producer, Mickey Sampson, country director of Resource Development International Cambodia (RDIC).

RDIC also produces karaoke videos about hand washing, bird flu, and sex slavery—many of them shown on national television.

With only 16 percent of people in Cambodia having access to some sort of latrine or toilet, RDIC has started pushing the toilet as a status symbol.

"'It's cool to have a toilet. Be the first person on your block to have one.' That seems to be more of a motivator than 'This will make me sick,'" Sampson said.

A similar approach is used to encourage hand washing.

"We say, 'If you want that guy to think you're beautiful, you have to wash your hands,'" Sampson added.

The Business Approach

Sampson and Ecotact's Kuria are engaging on social marketing, creating demand for a product by manipulating and creating behaviors. Unlike profit-driven commercial marketing, social marketing generally aims to increase the greater good.

"For decades, development organizations and governments have simply imposed sanitation—a free latrine, say—on people and then counted that as a success," said Rose George, author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

George has traveled the world to document what works and doesn't work in the world of sanitation.

"For all sorts of complicated reasons, people might not want to use a toilet even if they have one," she said.

"They might be used to the outdoors, not want to be cooped up in a box, have some cultural resistance to it being near the house or in the courtyard.

"Social marketing can overcome this by addressing human psychology," George said. "It can make a toilet into an object of desire."

For example, in the early 20th century soap manufacturers figured out that people would buy soap because they thought it made them more attractive, not because it was good for them, Rose explained.

"If it's done successfully, and with the proper infrastructure to back it up, people don't even know it's marketing."

The next thing you know the toilet taboos are broken.

The new generation of sanitation promoters, Water Advocates' John Oldfield said, are "making it acceptable to talk about shit."

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