Katy Burns: It’s all about the toilet paper . . . and other passions
Y’know what gets the American people exercised? Forget Ted Cruz. Or Obamacare. Or even the lousy fall TV season.
What really riles up the masses is (ta da!) toilet paper. It fully engages the interest – and often the anger – of ordinary folks out there.
About a week ago, my husband, a one-time Army officer and a retired lawyer who in both his professions was trained to be acutely observant, came to me with startling information. He had been stashing the new toilet paper under the bathroom sink – he is a willing partner in household chores – and he had noticed something shocking.
“The toilet paper rolls are narrower.”
There was no question about it, he said. He had compared an older roll to a new one, and there was a distinct difference. It was just like the Cheerios box that is ever so sneakily smaller, yet priced the same. Yet another manufacturer had surreptitiously reduced the size of its product – but not by very much, hoping that the folks would not notice.
So did the folks notice? Did they ever! I went to the Google and plugged in “Charmin Ultra Soft rolls narrower?” The once happy users of Charmin Ultra Soft were out in force decrying the perfidy of its manufacturer. On Walmart’s website alone, hundreds of people had left reviews, a lot of them incensed. Not only are the rolls precisely three-eighths of an inch narrower – reviewers can be a persnickety lot – but they have other defects.
The perforations have changed, so the tissues no longer tear off clearly! The new quilted pattern is coarse! It disintegrates as soon as it hits the water! The edges are ragged! The stuff clogged my toilet! Several people charged that the cardboard insert tubes are larger in diameter, allowing the manufacturer to use less paper per roll. A number harkened back to the good old days, when Charmin Ultra Soft was White Cloud and clearly was a superior product.
What was perhaps most fascinating is that these didn’t seem to be trolls or hired guns seeking to tout other toilet paper manufacturers. They were just folks venting.
Of course, toilet paper as a topic is especially fraught. The late advice columnist Ann Landers was once asked whether it was more proper to install a roll of toilet paper to hang over (in front of) or under (behind) the roll. Ann airily pronounced the proper position as “under,” whereupon all hell broke loose. Understandably, because she (and I say this as a long-time fan of Landers and her pithy advice but a longer-time fan of toilet paper hanging over the roll) was dead wrong.
Celebrities weighed in. Polls and gender surveys were taken. How much was age a factor? Some academics tried to find socioeconomic significance in how people chose.
Landers later said that the toilet paper issue was the most contentious in her column’s 56-year history.
But if toilet paper brings out passion in people in general and in online reviews in particular, it is hardly the only subject to preoccupy the internet’s reviewers of almost all things, great and small. I’m not talking about the obvious plants, scheming to discredit some businesses or to build up others or, for example, authors who corral all their pals to leave glowing reviews for their self-published books on Amazon.com.
I’m talking about Americans who, in the thousands, go online regularly to share their opinions – often sharply held – with their countrymen. Or just to explain how or why something works or to give helpful tips on products, places and services to others. Whether it’s a clothing site (“this runs large, so be sure to get a smaller size than you normally do”) or Gardener’s Supply, dealing with gardening equipment (“this hose tends to crimp”), people are genuinely concerned with giving helpful advice to others.
Take Trip Advisor. At least if you’re into off-the-usual-tourist-track places to visit, it is a wonderful place to look for info about restaurants and hotels. In upstate New York, members told us that finding an old rural inn is hard but worth doing because the owner serves a wickedly good stuffed French toast at breakfast. And other reviewers were right about the white bean fritters at a nearby restaurant. They were delicious.
For small towns in Germany, we’ve learned, there is a wealth of useful information for English speakers on Trip Advisor. A room in the back of the hotel is quieter. Reserve a space in the hotel car park when you make your reservation. The air conditioning doesn’t work well, so avoid the place in hot weather. The pillows are unacceptably thin. The proprietor is – take your choice – friendly, aloof, helpful about nearby things to see. Room 7 is the best in the house.
One reviewer said she had shunned her hotel’s restaurant because it was “very traditional looking with all the staff wearing the Bavarian garb – it’s all right if you like that sort of thing.” It does make one wonder why she was traveling in Bavaria in the first place.
And another’s low rating of a small hotel most reviewers loved was understandable when he explained that “a wardrobe fell on my companion.” That certainly raises all sorts of interesting questions.
But it’s Amazon.com that has the most useful reviews overall, since Amazon sells just about everything. And its users don’t hesitate to complain or, better, to give useful tips and explanations about whatever strikes their fancy.
And sometimes Amazon reviews are just fun. One patron bought a white chef’s hat, and this is what he had to say:
“I would have given this five stars, but adding the hat to my head did not improve my cooking at all. My wife assured me that it made me look ‘dashing’ and ‘handsome’ like a suaver Molto Mario, and on that I will give it the rest of the four stars. I might still be a terrible cook, but at least I’m sexy now.”
I’d love to read his review of the ever-diminishing toilet paper roll.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)