Changing The Image Of Public Toilets

Andy Narracott

Andy Narracott

Smelly toilets

Public toilets are known for being dirty and smelly. But not all public toilets are the same. Here’s how operators can counter their bad reputation.

But first, let’s get a sense of the size of the problem. Around a quarter of the world still doesn’t have a toilet or basic latrine. Many defecate in the open and a sizable chunk rely on shared or public toilets in their community or place of work. But many of these are unclean and hazardous to health.

“The smell is so bad you can hear it”

— colleague in Ghana

A trial in Kenya found that dirty school toilets is the reason why some kids don’t go to school. Particularly awful for girls managing their menstrual hygiene. 

I’ve been working with Bhumijo, a social enterprise in Bangladesh tackling this issue. They say the issue isn’t a lack of public toilets, but that the existing ones are so bad that users have to be desperate to go inside. Many would prefer to delay urination, which is one of the major causes of urinary tract infection. 

Photo by Bhumijo | Ending to public toilet crisis for women

But when they are well designed and managed like the Bhumijo toilets, how might we change their image when they are well designed and managed? 

Maybe the answer lies in our disgust instinct. Disgust is a psychological mechanism for helping us stay away from filth and maintain our health. There’s a theory that says the more we stay away from pathogens, the more likely we are to survive, and this behaviour has been passed down through the generations. The theory says the more we gossip, the more we stay away from pathogens and keep healthy. The cues are in our senses: have you ever smelt rotting meat, or recoiled when someone has a streaming nose and holds out their hand to shake?

This means that in order for us to combat the common perception of public toilets as a source of infection, we need to appeal to our senses.

Scent marketing is a common tactic used by brands. Think popcorn when you enter the cinema—they also sell hot dogs, nachos, and ice cream but you don’t smell that. Similarly, walk into a Scandinavian furniture shop and you’ll smell freshly cut wood with no cutting saw in sight. 

Citrus is also used by toilet cleaner brands to distract from the decidedly unpleasant job of cleaning toilets. When I was working with design firm IDEO on a project in Ghana, the team used this tactic by integrating a citrus segment motif to integrate with the logo. It’s also interesting how some beauty brands have been able to extend into new product lines, whereas toilet cleaner brands have had no such luck. 

Citrus scent
Photo by Sama Hosseini on Unsplash

On the visual side, the word “toilet” itself can cause people to recoil. The increased attention to hygiene over recent months could play to our advantage. Why not call public toilets “hygiene centres”, moving away from sanitation altogether? Could this change in image compel public toilet operators to upgrade their product to match higher public expectations?

A similar improvement can be made in their colour: many are paid red or brown, which are all “pathogen” evoking colours. Why not a colour that looks clean, like the white used in the Bhumijo toilets?

There are lots of cues marketers can use to alleviate fears of entering public toilets, from the visual to the experiential. With these tactics, public toilet businesses can provide a dignified experience and change their image for good.

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