Kohler revisits ‘Toilet in the Road’ ad for brand's 150th anniversary | Ad Age

2023-03-23 15:07:22 By : Ms. Selena wong

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Kohler, celebrating its 150th anniversary, nods at its past as it looks to the future.

Kohler is celebrating its 150th anniversary and promoting its Numi 2.0 smart toilet by taking a journey through the past—back to an iconic 1981 Kohler ad that caused a stir for its artful take on toilet advertising.

The old print ad, known simply as the “Toilet in the Road,” showed just that—Kohler’s then state-of-the-art San Raphael toilet in the middle of a mostly deserted road, with a woman in a silver dress gesturing toward it.

The unusual image looked more like a work of art than a toilet advertisement, echoing modernist art from as far back as Marcel Duchamp’s infamous urinal from 1917. The ad reinforced Kohler’s reputation for boldness—which it emphasized in national magazine ads beginning in 1915, and further cemented in 1967, when it introduced the tagline “The Bold Look of Kohler,” which remains to this day.

“Toilet in the Road” also helped the brand build more consumer awareness, beyond its already-strong reputation among plumbers and wholesalers.

For its sesquicentennial, Kohler’s current marketing team—including its in-house creative agency, The Beacon—was drawn to “Toilet in the Road” as a kind of touchstone for everything the brand represents. So, they decided to remake it, this time with the Numi 2.0.

PMG handled media for the campaign.

“The original ‘Toilet in the Road’ was provocative and challenged conventional norms,” Samie Barr, chief brand officer, told Ad Age. “It screamed ‘bold’ and helped Kohler climb in brand awareness to the leadership position we hold today. This creative and avant-garde approach is a blueprint that carries through our marketing today.”

The brand recruited modern fine-art photographer Douglas Friedman for the project, asking him to shoot a print ad as well as a commercial. The resulting 30-second spot—shot in Marfa, Texas, a town made famous by Donald Judd’s own minimalist art—opens with an aerial view before zooming in to a vantage point approximating the old ad, then exploring the Numi 2.0 in further detail.

Barr said the homage works whether or not you’re aware of the original. “We didn’t set out expecting or wanting consumers to recall the original. If they did, all the better,” she said. “The aesthetic of the Numi 2.0 smart toilet is clean and minimal, so having Douglas Friedman shoot the ad in Marfa was just a terrific match.” 

Friedman, who had never shot a spot before, told Ad Age he immediately said yes to the assignment, partly because the Numi 2.0 struck him as a piece of art in itself. With a modern, angular design, it has ambient colored lighting that can react to music, automatic open/close seat and lid, bidet functionality and a built-in speaker system, among other features.

“It’s unusual and striking and you don’t know what it is initially,” Friedman said. “It’s a beautiful thing—the way the light hits it, the texture of the form.”

He explored all this in the commercial, but says capturing the one still image for the print ad was more challenging. This was compounded by the fact that, even though they were on set for 12 hours, they ultimately had just 10 minutes to work with the right moment of light.

“You’re working to convey so much in just one frame,” he said. “The Numi has movement and life, so I had to think hard about the one moment I would capture. Numi with the lid down became more interesting, where it didn’t even look like a toilet. As a viewer, you’re engaged in the image even longer, working to understand what the product is.”

Barr said the brand has long admired Friedman’s work—his photographic compositions of global travels, love for unexpected interiors, and portraits of renowned personalities in the world of fashion, music, and celebrity. 

“Douglas is bold in his own right and brings an essence of individualism and innate beauty to the project as only a true artist can articulate,” she said. “We knew he would respect the original creative concept and artistically reimagine the iconic print campaign for a new generation by featuring the [Numi 2.0’s] ingenuity, innovation, movement and lighting.” 

Douglas Friedman hadn’t shot a spot before, but said capturing the still image was harder.

Since shooting a commercial was new to him, Friedman leaned a lot on his director of photography, Brian Henderson.

“In the director role, I got to step back and learn the language of it and the terminology,” he said. “We used the newest technology in video and a very basic motorized turn table to get the vibe we were after. It was fantastic.” 

Barr added that the project—both honoring the past and looking to the future—was the perfect way to kick off Kohler’s 150th anniversary celebrations, “building upon a bold history to continue showcasing our leadership in technological innovations that marry design, art, quality and culture.” 

Friedman and the Numi 2.0, in Marfa, Texas.

Tim Nudd is Creativity editor at Ad Age.