ShitBegone: An Interview With Jed Ela
Editor's Note: As most of you surely know,
ShitBegone Brand Toilet Paper is creating a
huge buzz in two normally disparate worlds: art and PoopReporting. ShitBegone is art
masquarading as commerce, and is succeeding in both worlds. (Check out our review of ShitBegone in PoopReport's Survey of Toilet Paper Brands.)
I'm very pleased that Jed Ela, creator of ShitBegone, took some time to answer our questions about his success, his product's appeal, the future of toilet paper branding, and the meaning of art.
1) How did ShitBegone come about?
A friend of mine came up with the name in college -- actually, I think
maybe his brother came up with it -- how funny it would be, if there was a
brand of toilet paper called ShitBegone.
Jed Ela, founder of ShitBegone.
I made the first roll a couple years later. I had been thinking about
readymades and commodity-art.
The first readymades were shocking, but now
a century later readymades are just another style. It's a normal way to
make art -- to point at something or make a reference -- you can paint it
or take a photo of it, but you can also just bring it into the gallery
and call it art. That transformation is now a routine part of the
economy, another way of creating value.
I was thinking that the opposite hadn't happened much: the readymade
flowing back out of the gallery, retaking its place as an ordinary thing.
The readymade is about isolating the commodity, freezing it in time. I
didn't want that. I wanted a normal, everyday flow -- what logistics
calls the "commodity stream."
In 1999 I did some work called "unfinished business" where I would buy
things at the store, show them as art, and then go back to the store and
just put them back on the shelf. The object was not for sale while in my
posession, and I didn't sign it or do anything to it. Just put it back,
"catch and release."
Around that time I made the first few rolls of ShitBegone -- I remembered
the joke and made a few rolls as a gift for my friend. It didn't take
long to realize this was much more than a joke -- it was a product that
people would buy, and if it was cheap and plentiful, they would use it
too. So I decided to run with it, show a whole truckload and see what
2) Where do you have it made? Are there many resources for
producing "microbrew" toilet paper, so to speak?
I got it from a converting plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Actually, it was
extremely difficult to find somebody to do it -- there are basically no
resources at all for "microbrew" toilet paper. Until you understand the
technology and the industry a little bit, you don't even know who to
call -- this is an industry with very large players who mostly know each
other and deal with each other, and don't have any infrastructure for
dealing with new customers in a non-traditional way. In the world of
toilet paper, one truckload is not a lot. I actually figured out the
other day that if I sell one truckload of TP a year then my U.S. market
share is about .0002% -- two ten-thousandths of one percent.
3) Functionally, is ShitBegone any different than any other toilet paper?
In the past I've claimed various features as superior, the way other
brands do -- but I found with a name like ShitBegone I can't do that
without coming off as kind of hokey, kind of overly ironic. The point
isn't to make fun of everyone else, it's just to sell something that is
what it is. The paper is soft, it's pretty strong, it's lightly embossed
(what many companies call "quilted", which is a silly word). There are a
lot of different kinds of TP and SBG is pretty good stuff, within that
range. But it's not like it has magic properties. It's a piece of tissue
that you clean yourself off with.
4) How would you describe the response to ShitBegone?
It's been very good -- people love the idea, and they love to tell their
friends about it. The trick is getting people over their initial
disbelief and their assumption of scarcity. People see a product that's
fun and refreshing and different and they assume, first, it just can't be
real; and if it is, then it must be collectible, it's rare, it's art,
etc. Which is fine but in the end it's just toilet paper, you can always
use it and buy another roll -- I consider this a 20-year project at
least, so the brand is not going anywhere and the price is not so
different from any other T.P.
5) Compare ShitBegone to "White Cloud," "Angel Soft" and
"Charmin." The latter three disguise their true nature in brand images of
clouds and cotton balls and teddy bears, whereas ShitBegone is quite upfront about
its purpose. Why do you think people respond to such a straight-talking brand?
Enough ShitBegone to last a year.. or two months, if you eat at Taco Bell a lot.
I think Americans in general have a very deep respect for the "no bull"
attitude. That's how we market our trucks and our cigarettes and it works
great for those products. But when it comes to body-related things, that
attitude comes up against some very deep, old taboos. ShitBegone takes
the "no bull" attitude and the body taboos and makes them face off, and
what you get is cognitive dissonance -- which according to my freshman
psych text is the first ingredient of humor.
6) Do you think your success will start a trend in "honest"
branding, in which the marketer sells the product based on its function, and not a contrived image?
I think it already has. Kimberly-Clark, one of the largest TP makers, has
a new Web site in which every page features a different picture of
somebody's butt. They have section titles like "Potty Fun" and "The
Washroom Post." The whole thing is pretty lame really, but it shows how
much the general attitude is starting to change. I think in 20 years,
you'll see 90% of TP being sold under names that are closer to
"ShitBegone" than "Angel Soft."
7) ShitBegone is art. You conceived it as an art
installation in 1999, and the act of selling it is a kind of performance. Yet,
your intentions aside, you are making and selling a product. You market
something that appeals to a niche. To me, that sounds like capitalism. If
you consider ShitBegone art, how do you differentiate it from what Proctor and Gamble does?
Art is a category within capitalism, and like any large category its
borders are fuzzy. Look at any well-known artist today (or ever) and you
will see a company, an economy of suppliers, assistants, dealers,
lawyers, accountants, and customers. Historically the "art" economy has
been about marketing expensive craft objects to wealthy collectors, and
it still is mostly about that. But conceptually at least, that
categorization has been under assault for a century by the avant-gardes--
which have been pretty unified in seeing that definition of art as
anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic.
One result is that now we have another, parallel way of categorizing
art -- not by what it is, but by what it does. Now art is not (just) a
craft; now it's anything that makes us think, that moves society and
advances culture. I just read an article that called art "one of several
systems for the production of knowledge," which sums it up pretty well.
Now I'm not denying that Proctor and Gamble also produces knowledge --
through advertising, through industrial white papers, company memos, etc.
-- but that is not the purpose of what they do, it's just a by-product.
They aren't efficient at producing knowledge, they're efficient at
producing toilet paper. Me, I'm the other way around; I sell one
truckload of paper, and I've probably got half the press their company
has for a hundred thousand trucks. Of course, I want to be them -- I'd
rather it was the other way around, their company is what I want
ShitBegone to be. At least, part of me wants that, and so somewhat
arbitrarily, I've made it the premise of the ShitBegone project. And you
can say what you want about that, I really don't know the answer.
It's a peculiar thing, it's very ambitious, but it's also the most
mundane aspiration in the world -- who doesn't want to have a giant,
successful company and sell oodles of stuff and make money at it? But in
the end I think it still comes down to the knowledge thing -- even if I do
get there, I will have produced this interview on the way. For that
matter, I'll have produced it even if ShitBegone flops. Which is good,
because in the end it's been a lot more interesting to write this than it
would be to work at P&G!
Editor's Note: You can order ShitBegone for yourself at their website.