The Big Squeeze: How Mr. Whipple Made Advertising History

Charmin toilet paper icon Mr. Whipple in 1999.
Charmin toilet paper icon Mr. Whipple in 1999.
Bob Riha, Jr., Getty Images

In the 1970s, a handful of famous faces dominated popular culture. There was scandalized former president Richard Nixon; the Reverend Billy Graham; daredevil Evel Knievel; and boxer Muhammad Ali, among others.

Dick Wilson had a face, not a name, that might have come close to being equally recognizable. The English actor was known to millions of Americans as Mr. Whipple, the nervous grocer who spent 21 years and more than 500 commercials pleading with fictional customers to please "don't squeeze the Charmin."

Born in Preston, England, on July 30, 1916, Wilson grew up in Ontario, where he worked as a radio announcer as a teenager, and attended the Ontario College of Art and Design majoring in sculpture. (He would also later serve in the Canadian Air Force during World War II.) Wilson, who was the son of two performers—his father was a vaudeville attraction and his mother a singer—designed scenery for a dance school after graduating and got compensated in the form of dance lessons. Those skills led to Wilson becoming a comedic acrobatic performer on the vaudeville circuit, which led to acting.

The MVP of TP

When Wilson got the call to audition for a toilet paper commercial in 1964, he had already built up a long career in stage, film, and television, including one-off appearances on everything from Bewitched to McHale’s Navy. The call for the commercial came from Wilson's agent, about whom the actor joked he had put on a missing persons list due to the lack of communication.

Toilet paper mascots were, of course, nothing new. As far back as the 1920s, brands like Scott and Charmin had used a variety of figures on packaging that had positive connotations—things like babies, angels, and puppies. Scott had Mr. Thirsty Fibre, a gentleman in a top hat who seemed downright ornery. Charmin, introduced by the Hoberg Paper Company in 1928, used a woman’s silhouette and later a baby to endorse their buttock wipe. (An employee described the pattern on the roll as "charming," leading to its name.)

These mascots were necessary in a time when being explicit about the quality of toilet paper was virtually forbidden. Until 1890, magazines wouldn’t even accept ads for toilet tissue. That year, The Atlantic agreed to print a photo of a package but didn’t allow any advertising copy to accompany it. And prior to 1975, television commercials weren’t allowed use of the phrase toilet paper. It was “bathroom tissue.”

This was the world Wilson found himself in when he beat out 33 would-be Whipples to become the face of the ad campaign. The character was named after George Whipple, a public relations director for ad agency Benton & Bowles, on the premise that no one else could sue Charmin parent company Procter & Gamble, which bought Charmin in 1957, for using their name.

The Big Squeeze

In the world depicted in the ads, Mr. Whipple was a grocer who appeared to have a great deal of anxiety over customers—typically giddy housewives—who couldn’t resist squeezing the Charmin products.

The premise was devised by Benton & Bowles copywriter John Chervokas, who said he was inspired by shoppers who squeezed fruit to evaluate its firmness before buying. Chervokas also wrote Mr. Whipple’s signature plea, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.”

But squeeze it they did, across 504 ads total from 1964 to 1985. The punchline was that even Mr. Whipple himself could not resist Charmin’s softness, and often gave in to the temptation to squeeze when no one was looking.

The spots were formulaic by necessity. “What are you going to say about toilet paper?” Wilson once asked. “I think we handle it the best way we can.”

A legend is born

In an industry where human mascots can have a high turnover rate—we’re looking at you, Dell Dude—two decades is a notable achievement. Wilson himself considered it a cushy job, once noting that it took just 16 days out of the year. Charmin also provided him with a monthly shipment of toilet paper.

In return, Wilson swore loyalty to Procter & Gamble, refusing to appear in any other commercials or endorse any other products. He also faithfully followed a morals clause in order to protect the character; "I can't be seen coming out of a porn parlor,” Wilson told the Chicago Tribune in 1985.

Wilson appeared sporadically after his retirement in 1985, returning for a series of ad spots in 1999 to celebrate a new, more absorbent version of Charmin. That led to a Lifetime Achievement Award, given to him by the company in 2000, though the ceremony was delayed after a Screen Actors Guild strike complicated things. (Wilson showed up at a rally with the line, “Please don’t squeeze the actors.”)

That same year, the Charmin bear was introduced. Wilson died at age 91 in 2007. While he probably never imagined he would become nationally known for endorsing toilet paper, he maintained a sense of humor about it. When queried about his career squeezing rolls, he enjoyed pointing out where he shot his very first commercial: in Flushing, New York.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Miami Sound Machine: Remembering Don Johnson's Music Career

Don Johnson and Barbra Streisand in September 1988.
Don Johnson and Barbra Streisand in September 1988.
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Don Johnson had a problem. It was 1986, and Johnson was one of the hottest television stars of the era, starring as Miami cop Sonny Crockett on the hit NBC drama Miami Vice. Sporting pastel shirts and white suits, Johnson was a new breed of television authority figure. He had a gun, but he also had fashion sense.

Johnson's problem was not with the show, or with his shoulder pads, but the fact that he was beginning to speak about his music career and his debut album, Heartbeat. Already, Johnson was feeling the heat applied to actors who attempt to sing. It was made worse by the fact that Philip Michael Thomas, his co-star on Miami Vice, had also recorded an album, Living the Book of My Life, that had come and gone unceremoniously. Johnson wanted to be taken seriously as a singer. He wasn’t sure the media or his audience would let him try.

 

Before he had ever aspired to become an actor, Johnson was performing solos for choir anthems at the Baptist church in his small hometown of Galena, Missouri. The attention—and occasional quarter—he received, he later said, may have sparked his interest in becoming an entertainer. Impressing with a leading role in a production of West Side Story, he eventually won a drama scholarship to the University of Kansas and got a grant from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which led him to Hollywood. From there he took on small roles, including one in 1975's Return to Macon County, which also featured Dickey Betts, guitarist for the Allman Brothers.

Johnson had always kept one eye on the music scene, using some of the proceeds from his acting jobs to pay for demo recordings. (He could sing, play guitar a little, and write.) With Betts, he co-wrote two songs, “Blind Love” and “Can’t Take It With You,” for the band’s 1979 album, Enlightened Rogues. Throughout the 1970s, he had also hung out with The Doors and befriended Frank Zappa, getting a self-admitted education in the hedonism of the music scene without actually appearing on stage.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas co-starred on Miami Vice for five seasons. Both also recorded albums.NBC Television/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Johnson filmed a number of failed television pilots before scoring Miami Vice in 1984. After the show was a certifiable hit, he was at a party with CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff. The two began to discuss Johnson’s interest in music. Yetnikoff believed Johnson’s fame and ardent fan following could help make an album a hit. He signed Johnson, then 36, to a deal on the spot.

There were some obstacles. For one, Johnson had no band. To guide him through the process, he hired manager and record executive Danny Goldberg, who in turn enlisted Chas Sandford, a songwriter who had worked with Stevie Nicks and John Waite. Soon, a group of session players, including bassist Mark Leonard and keyboardist Bill Champlin, materialized. Johnson and Sandford began fielding pitches from songwriters, many of whom seemed too dependent on Johnson’s association with Miami Vice. Songs titled “Mr. Miami” and “Miami Don” were quickly discarded. Instead, Johnson pursued a contemporary rock playlist and got contributions from Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Dickey Betts. (Recording at Criteria studios in Miami, Johnson even roped in friend Whoopi Goldberg to appear on a track titled “Streetwise.”) Johnson himself wrote lyrics for “Heartbeat,” which was originally composed by drummer Curly Smith. It eventually became the title of the album.

With the help of media consultant Elliot Mintz, Johnson managed to avoid some of the baggage that accompanied actors recording albums by passing up Entertainment Tonight in favor of Rolling Stone and other media outlets that focused on music. He emphasized that music had run parallel to his acting career and charmed journalists by being self-effacing about his ambitions.

“People will say this [record] is bullsh*t and ‘the jerk ought to stay with what he does,’” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times. “But I’m someone who likes to take risks.”

"Heartbeat" quickly gained airplay on Top 40 radio stations; the song's popularity was bolstered by the fact that Johnson could actually sing. One writer for the Los Angeles Times played the album for people without telling them it was Johnson. All were impressed, then incredulous when they were told who they were listening to.

Johnson’s Miami Vice schedule made it nearly impossible to tour to support the album. Instead, he filmed a one-hour musical released on VHS that incorporated all 10 tracks from Heartbeat. (It also features an appearance by Giancarlo Esposito, who would go on to portray Gus Fring in Breaking Bad.) Most of the songs focused on love, with tracks like “Heartache Away,” “The Last Sound Love Makes,” and “Can’t Take Your Memory” showcasing Johnson’s vocal talents.

“Heartbeat” made it to number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October 1986, and Johnson experienced virtually none of the scorn reserved for actors who dared to try something different. He even performed a duet with then-girlfriend Barbra Streisand, '"Till I Loved You," in 1988, and released a second album, Let It Roll, in 1989. Johnson later appeared on stage in 2007 as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. Mostly, however, he was content to keep his musical interests private.

Heartbeat was ultimately a respectable endeavor for Johnson, though he wasn’t quite able to completely divorce himself from the reality of being a television star. On some versions of the album’s cover, a tag line made that extremely clear. It read: “Don Johnson: The Star of Miami Vice.”