At least a dozen people have e-mailed me a photo of a plumbing contractor's truck that is bound to turn heads as it makes its way around town. On the driver's door is painted a chest-down image of a man with pants pulled down sitting on a toilet. The live driver, shown from chest up smiling and waving through an open window, completes the picture, making it look as if he's the one sitting on the can. I'm sure many of you have seen the same jpeg. It seems to have ricocheted around the Internet as much as Paris Hilton's sex life.
You'd have to be dead not to laugh at the ridiculous image, and I'm glad to confirm I'm very much alive. Yet, mine were chuckles tinged with guilt for finding humor in what's really a sad situation.
Plumbing contractors constantly complain about their lousy image in the eyes of the public. I often hear from them when something negative appears in the media about plumbers, or when Leno or Letterman poke fun at them. PM readers get indignant, and some urge me to fight back on their behalf - as if Leno and Letterman pay attention to PM.
Years ago, I actually did write a letter to David Letterman that was, in keeping with his show's spirit, tongue-in-cheek but defending our industry's honor. We published it in PM's Letters To The Editor section, and I recall getting a reply from one of Letterman's assistants that was good-natured in tone. I would speak out on behalf of the industry more often if I thought it would do some good, but usually the best response to negative publicity is to let it pass in silence. Fighting back simply draws more attention to the original insult.
The best thing plumbing contractors can do about their negative image is to turn it to their advantage. Accept that most people think of plumbers as a bunch of butt-crack exhibitionists. It actually works in the favor of plumbing companies that elevate themselves above the norm. Amid such low expectations, it doesn't take much to stand out. Clean trucks and uniforms and a little customer relationship training can make your people seem like royal ambassadors compared with 90 percent of the competition.
Besides, celebrity quips don't do half the damage to your reputation that fellow plumbing contractors do to themselves. The truck described here no doubt draws plenty of attention, but is that the image you want to convey to potential customers?
A while ago, someone sent me another photo of a plumbing truck. It had emblazoned on its side the well-known slogan adopted by the plumbing fraternity at-large - "Other people's scat (I'm being polite) is our bread and butter."
There aren't many prudes in this down-to-earth industry of ours. I confess to indulging in outrageously dark, gross or filthy humor when among close friends. But you won't see any of it in a public forum like this. And that's the point. There's a difference between what's tolerable in private and what's suitable for public display.
It's not unusual for professionals to poke fun at themselves. Some of the most biting lawyer jokes emanate from law offices. Medical students are renowned for outrageous "Animal House" antics involving cadavers. However, if budding doctors relieve stress by throwing body parts at one another in an anatomy lab, it can be shrugged off as immature hijinks. But would any of you want to patronize a physician who decided to lighten the mood by decorating his office with intestines?
Likewise, it's one thing to voice the "bread and butter" dictum or depict someone taking a dump at a fraternal gathering of trade insiders, quite another to broadcast it to outsiders who are as likely to be disgusted as amused. Plumbing contractors would do well to keep their potty humor as a trade secret. Lowbrow buffoonery only eggs people on to indulge in plumber jokes and look down upon your trade as America's version of India's Untouchable caste.
The Untouchables are at the bottom of that land's traditional social order. They often are relegated to jobs disposing of human waste - without the sanitary tools and equipment used by the plumbing trade in more advanced societies.
It's easy to feel sorry for the Untouchables, whose lot in life is an accident of birth. In contrast, plumbing contractors reap what they sow when they voluntarily degrade themselves and the rest of the industry for the sake of cheap laughs.