The Brilliant Plan to Sell Wallpaper Cleaner to Children

Wallpaper cleaner and children. The only apparent connection between the two is that the more you have of the latter, the more likely you will need the former. With appropriate supervision, you might want to have children help scrub the walls. Aside from that, we generally don’t advocate unfettered access to cleaning materials by those who are so young.

That’s why Joe’s marketing scheme was surprising — and brilliant.

Before we can tell you about Joe’s big idea, however, you need to know how the wallpaper cleaner came about in the first place. For that, we need to learn about Joe’s Uncle Noah.

Noah McVicker saw a need. Wallpaper tended to get pretty dirty. As if that weren’t enough, it was exceptionally difficult to clean. We’re talking about the days when houses were primarily heated by coal. The residue from coal smoke made its way throughout everyone’s house. Nowhere was it more of a problem than on the wallpaper. The black, oily substance tended to cling to the decorative paper, earning a special place of enmity with every housewife.

Noah knew that an easy-to-use, inexpensive wallpaper cleaner would allow him to — well — clean up. Such a product would be popular beyond belief. The executives at Kroger Grocery agreed and signed a contract to sell Noah’s innovative cleaner. Noah was so confident that the product would sell that he readily agreed to a penalty clause in the contract, where he would personally bear the financial hardship if the product didn’t sell as expected.

With the contract signed, there was just one little detail to work out. Noah had yet to invent the revolutionary product. That might have been an obstacle for you or me, but Noah McVicker was not to be put off by such trivialities. He set to work, mixing this substance with that substance, revising, starting over, and trying again. Finally, and barely in time to meet the deadline imposed by the contract, Noah delivered the product.

It worked just as well as he said it would. It was a white paste that was easily applied and just as easily removed. It made short work of what used to be a tedious chore.

That was 1921, and Noah’s Cincinnati-based Kutol Products started churning out Kutol Wall Cleaner to meet the demands of a grateful public. For the next twenty years, Kutol Wall Cleaner lived up to every one of Noah’s promises and dreams.

What he hadn’t counted on was natural gas. In the years following World War II, more and more homes abandoned coal in favor of gas heat. This did away with the primary target of Kutol’s cleaning power. On top of that, the introduction of vinyl-based wallpaper and its promise of being easily washable may have made the walls of America’s homes clean, but at Kutol Products, the writing was on the wall. Sales plummeted.

That was the dismal state of the business when Noah’s nephew, Joe McVicker, took over. He is the one who thought there might be some value in changing the company’s target audience. Instead of marketing Kutol to housewives, what would happen if they targeted children, instead?

Technically, it was Joe’s sister-in-law, Kay Zufall, who gave him the idea. Kay was a nursery school teacher. She heard about someone using the wallpaper cleaner for an art project, and she thought she might give it a try with her students. It turned out that they loved it. The paste was easy to mold into shapes. If left out to dry, the models hardened permanently into that shape. If kept in an airtight container, the paste could be reused over and over.

Joe was intrigued. He also knew that a product that had so long been associated solely with cleaning wallpaper would need some serious marketing magic if it was going to become a kid’s product. That’s when he approached Bob.

Bob had just started a children’s television program with an audience that was just the right age to appreciate Kutol’s playtime potential. The only problem was that Joe was strapped for cash and couldn’t afford the typical advertising rates. Instead, would Bob agree to take a percentage of the sales in exchange for featuring the product on his show? Bob thought about it and decided to give it a try.

You will have already guessed that Joe’s strategy worked. There are just a few more details to fill in. One easy and obvious change was to add some color to Kutol. The white paste was fine for a cleaner, but children would want something more vibrant. Kutol started producing the product in various colors under the newly-rebranded Rainbow Crafts Company. By 1957, it was available in red, yellow, and blue.

Of course, “Kutol Wall Cleaner” wouldn’t do for a children’s product. It got a new name — the name you know it by today: Play-Doh.

As for the advertising gimmick, yes, it worked very well. Bob started featuring Play-Doh several times a week. In 1958, Play-Doh’s sales reached $3 million, and that was just the beginning.

As for Bob, he made out pretty well from the deal. Play-Doh would continue to be a feature of his program for the next thirty years. It’s quite possible that your first exposure to Play-Doh came from seeing it on Bob’s show. If so, you likely know Bob by a different name. Just as Kutol Wall Cleaner came to be known by millions of children by a different name, Bob Keeshan came to be known and loved by millions of children as Captain Kangaroo.

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