Sexy Marketing Aims to Boost Toilet Use

Tasha Eichenseher in Istanbul, Turkey
for National Geographic News
March 17, 2009
If a public toilet is good enough for Miss Kenya, it should be good enough for the less glamorous citizens of her nation.

At least that's the theory behind a marketing campaign for public toilets in Nairobi's vast Kibera slum. At these "toilet malls," people can also shower, get their shoes repaired, shop for food, use the phone, and feel proud to be seen.

More than 2.5 billion people worldwide reportedly don't have access to a clean, safe place to do their business. And in many cultures, toilet-related words and actions are taboo—adding to the challenges faced by development and sanitation workers, said Pete Kolsky, senior water and sanitation specialist at the World Bank.

Nearly five million people annually die of waterborne diseases, and more than 80 percent of the developing world's illnesses are caused by unsafe water and inadequate sanitation, according to the nonprofit group Water Advocates.

Traditional methods of building facilities and educating people about the connection between disease and exposure to fecal matter aren't enough to break through social stigmas, according to Kolsky.

The solution: selling sanitation the Madison Avenue way, with good old-fashioned sex appeal and social pressure.

In Kenya, a nonprofit organization called Ecotact has called on Miss Kenya, along with the country's vice president, a popular comedian, and local religious leaders to promote, visit, and use the new public toilets of Kibera.

Ecotact director David Kuria said he wants to link beauty and hygiene. "We asked, 'How do we make this topic sexy, glamorous?'"

Singing for Sanitation and Health

Linking celebrities and toilet use is just one approach.

In Cambodia, where drinking water can be dangerously polluted, one development entrepreneur has started producing romantic karaoke videos about testing for pollution and using soap.

One video (watch on next page) features an attractive young couple.

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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