Covid-19 is gripping the world. So why are we hoarding toilet paper?

Bleach and cleaning supplies are emptied out - along with toilet paper.
Bleach and cleaning supplies are emptied out – along with toilet paper.

We are in the midst of a pandemic. I get that. Our normal activities and movements are being affected and even restricted. I get that, too. What I don’t quite get is why are we buying crates upon crates of toilet paper and bottled water in response to a virus outbreak? Not surprisingly, I do have an opinion.

This is actually not the first time that I’ve asked this kind of question. In June of 2017, the Atlanta area was under an intense hurricane watch. In response (or “preparation”) to the hurricane threat, we ran out to stores and hoarded insane amounts of water bottles. I lugged perhaps 100 bottles home. The next day, the hurricane dissipated and it took us months to finish all of that water. It is now March of 2020, and the Covid-19 coronavirus is gripping the world. This time we’ve responded to impending doom with a run on toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Three years after Hurricane Irma left the folks of Atlanta hanging with a river of bottled water, I am still puzzling over mass hoarding of very specific items. This time, I am not the only one asking this question:

  • An Aljazeera article theorizes that “consumers are trying to gain control and panic buying is essentially our attempt to be in control of a situation“.
    This sounds plausible to me that filling our car’s backseat with Charmin Ultra Strong Mega Rolls helps us feel like we are not powerless against a sweeping menace that we can’t see.
  • A New York Times article reports that “shoppers, preparing for the possibility that the coronavirus could keep them quarantined for weeks or months, have been snapping up every roll they can find“.
    This also makes sense if you are driven by the fear of being on house arrest for two months.

In the ten-plus years I have worked in marketing, I have developed what I like to call an intellectual curiosity about what makes large swaths of people do the things that they do. My contention is that our universal obsession to hoard specific items at specific times is almost always triggered by the awesome power of suggestion. Our desperation for answers (especially in scary times) will cause us accept almost anything (no matter how irrational) that an authoritative figure tells us. Here’s what I mean: as Covid-19 starts to dominate the news, a few well intended (or well compensated) Dr. Big Shots get on TV with the God appointed mission of telling us what we need to “survive” this latest global panic. Dr. Big Shot says something like “make sure you are washing your hands more (good advice), and make sure you are stocked up on essentials like water bottles and — wait for it — toilet paper. And there you have it. Dr. Big Shot gets quoted and repeated because he was dressed impeccably and he sounded so official; and the next day, toilet paper shelves are literally emptied out.

I don’t have any proof of my theory, but then again, I don’t need it. The beauty of the internet and the news is that we get to report opinion as fact. Plus, this was not the first time a run on toilet paper (no pun intended) happened after a media mention. Tonight Show host Johnny Carson is infamously credited for a 1973 toilet paper shortage. This time, Proctor & Gamble, you owe Dr. Big Shot an elbow bump. His platitudes just sent your stock soaring.

What do you think is behind a seemingly world-wide run on toilet paper? Tweet me here and let’s discuss.