From the joke shop to the high street: why poo is no longer taboo


Poop emoji chocolate cupcakes. Before recent developments the concept of cheery, anthropomorphised excrementertainment was already familiar to many says Peter Robinson.Photo: Shutterstock 

It’s celebrated in emojis, party bags and board games, piled on cup cakes and meringues – and there’s even a museum dedicated to it. How did we get here?

‘I was a little hesitant about setting up the National Poo Museum,” begins Daniel Roberts, co-creator of the Isle of Wight’s most intriguing new tourist destination. “I thought, am I going to be socially contaminated? Are people going to point at me? Am I going to become Mr Poo?”

He needn’t have worried. The museum’s exhibits – encased in balls of resin, like something from a slightly troubling reimagining of Jurassic Park – were a hit. During the year in which the attraction was housed at the Isle of Wight Zoo, the zoo reported its busiest-ever summer. “People just loved it,” Roberts says. “We were nobodies, but because we mentioned poo, the whole world came running.” The museum’s arrival couldn’t have been better timed because, as Roberts puts it: “In the two years since we launched, we’ve seen an explosion in poo.”

This is what we might term the sheitgeist. Is there a parent in the land whose child has not arrived home in the last two years clutching a party bag containing some sort of poo-related item: an emoji keyring, a poo-themed eraser, a pot of white or rainbow-coloured “unicorn poo” slime or putty? A-list party bags are not exempt: at this year’s Oscars, coveted goodie bags given to nominees included a toilet plunger in the shape of a smiling poo. The “pile of poop” emoji may have peaked in cultural terms when Patrick Stewart voiced the cheery plop in 2017’s The Emoji Movie, but nothing could stop this movement. Last August, according to Google Trends, poop became bigger than Beyoncé; last month the Unko Museum opened in Japan, offering interactive exhibits, a ball pit (maybe give that one a miss), games and art. Its mascot, Umberto, is “a philosopher who recalls the truth of the universe on the toilet seat”.

Bowel-based interests are nothing new – whoopee cushions date back to ancient Rome and a Sumerian one-liner from 1900 BC, cited as the world’s oldest joke, centres on flatulence. But poo merchandise has leapt from the joke shop to the high street. In 2019 Play-Doh offers a special Poop Troop set containing four brown pots promising “squishy, poopy fun”. Unicorn excrement tops Asda cupcakes and BBC Good Food offers directions on how to create poop meringues. There’s fun for all the family with board games like Hook-A-Poop, Doggie Poo and Don’t Step In It. Claire’s Accessories has sold poo-themed earrings and lip gloss. For a poo nightlight, find your local branch of The Entertainer. Head to Hamleys for a Poopsie Slime Surprise Assortment. Drones configured as flying dung? Sure, why not: £4 on Amazon.

Last year H Grossman, Scotland’s biggest toy manufacturer, sold half a million pots of unicorn poo. Spokesperson Julie Pittilla says Grossman also offers dog poo (“That one comes with two flies – a classy touch”), unicorn poo, llama poo, mermaid poo (“It brings up all sorts of images, doesn’t it?”), dinosaur poo, flamingo poo and sloth poo. “Kids have always loved poo,” Pittilla declares. “It’s a bit of defiance – it’s like walking into a room full of vicars and shouting something rude.”

Poo sells

Creating similar products is Tobar, whose sub-brand The Throne Room offers a tightly coiled “poo hat” and something called the Floater. “We’ve got a pack of two wind-up poos,” adds CEO David Mordecai. “You can put them in the bath so you have poos racing against each other.”

Top items routinely sell in the tens of thousands, Mordecai notes. “Poo sells. I don’t think 2019 will see any decline in demand.” I ask whether there’s been pushback from retailers – regardless of demand, it’s hard to imagine enthusiasm from stores like John Lewis. “There are some retailers who have said: ‘We just can’t sell it, we’re not allowed’,” Mordecai admits. He has been able to get poo in through the back door, though: “Some people wouldn’t take the brown poo, but they will take unicorn poo.”

The importance of visual differentiation, echoed in the linguistic nuance that finds some brands eschewing “poo” in favour of the more playful, less graphic “poop”, is clear when you compare Britain’s National Poo Museum with Japan’s Unko Museum. The former is a celebration of actual excreta, some human, while Yokohama’s answer is all about cute, colourful, kawaii-style poo with origins in the early-80s manga Dr Slump and its character Poop-Boy, often cited as inspiration for the “pile of poop” emoji that first appeared on Japanese phones in the late 90s.

Before recent developments the concept of cheery, anthropomorphised excrementertainment was already familiar to many. This year sees the 20th anniversary of South Park character Mr Hankey scoring a worldwide hit with his single Mr Hankey, The Christmas Poo, with its lyric: “A present from down below, spreading joy with a ‘Howdy-Ho!’/He’s seen the love inside of you, ’cause he’s a piece of poo”. Hankey had a real-life counterpart in Tió de Nadal, a Catalan festive tradition involving a pile of logs being “fed” until it excretes nougat, but the South Park creation’s comic power lay in the fact that, surely, nobody in the real world would ever celebrate or play with poo.

Yet here we are. Last summer toy giant Mattel launched a game called Flushin’ Frenzy, in which children fight to grab poo as it’s hurled out of a toilet in a manner so evocative of Buckaroo that you wonder why the game isn’t called Chuckapoo.

£300m annual “kidult” toy market

Perhaps it was inevitable that Generation Hankey, those teens of the late-1990s who are now parents, would be amenable to their own kids playing a game like Flushin’ Frenzy. Or maybe it’s not just their kids: in 2017 research into the £300m annual “kidult” toy market suggested that for every 11 toys sold, one was bought by an adult for themselves. Either way, it’s strange how Mr Hankey’s legacy lives on: this year Nasa engineer Kevin M Gill spotted a familiar-looking cyclonic region in the solar system, a discovery summarised by a memorable HuffPost headline: Nasa Discovers “South Park” Character Mr Hankey The Christmas Poo On Jupiter.

For a more down-to-earth take let’s speak to Nick Haslam, professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne and author of the 2012 book Psychology in the Bathroom. Of traditional attitudes towards poo, he says: “Poo is a primal object of disgust and shame, and we are motivated to remove and conceal it for that reason. And if you are putting something out of sight, it’s usually also the case that you put it out of mind as well by making it a taboo.” Haslam wonders if poo’s repositioning is part of a broader shift: “I suspect it’s driven by a cultural trend towards violating polite taboos with comic intent.”

When I ask what this is doing to kids’ minds, Haslam’s reply is straightforward: “Probably nothing.”

He cites a study in which children were fed crackers topped with what they were told was poo. It concluded that after the age of three children learn poo is to be avoided at all costs, but that they also come to realise the difference between poo itself and representations of it. Kids, Haslam says, are “flirting with the taboo of doing something revolting”, which he equates to riding on a rollercoaster – a “controlled microdose of an intense negative emotion”.

Roberts, currently renovating the derelict fort that will become the National Poo Museum’s permanent home this summer, takes an interesting view when asked if this is all a flash in the pan. “It’s a concern for us in a sense,” he says, “but if poo comes in waves I think there are different waves going on right now. We might have reached peak ‘jokey poo’, but more serious things have been unleashed.”

He mentions advances in the field of faecal microbiota transplants, which involve the transfer of a donor’s poo, containing healthy bacteria, into a recipient’s intestines. The procedure can treat infections where antibiotics cannot; studies are showing that transplants could also help with obesity and even depression. Reporting on faecal transplants last year, the BBC used the phrase “medicine’s most disgusting procedure”; would progress in the field have come sooner had people been more open to discussing poo? The NHS seems to think so: in February it included “poo” in a list of around 100 suggested words for people writing about health. “We know some people think we shouldn’t use words like ‘pee’ and ‘poo’,” wrote NHS content designer Sara Wilcox in a detailed blog, “but we haven’t seen anyone have problems knowing what we mean. Most importantly, if someone with poor literacy understands ‘blood in your poo’, it might just save their life.”

“After we opened,” Roberts adds, “one of the first things that happened was that we were contacted by several cancer charities. Bowel cancer charities had been struggling with finding ways to talk openly about poo. People weren’t going to the doctor until it was too late – thousands of people a year were dying of embarrassment.”

The key to truly unlocking the public conversation, he thinks, may lie in the National Poo Museum securing a celebrity donation. His wishlist escalates quite dramatically: Chris Evans, Radio 1’s Greg James, David Attenborough, the Queen, the pope. “They could have a massive effect on the whole poo taboo, just by donating,” Roberts suggests. “Either way, I hope we’ve had some role in making poo into a positive thing that people can talk about.”

By Peter Robinson