Auckland drivers are being left bamboozled by a plumbing company whose ‘cheeky’ design merges lavatories and law enforcement. Alex Casey reports.
Summer was on her first solo outing as a mum of two, with both a toddler and a new baby in the car, when her baby started screaming in the back seat. “He kept spitting out his dummy, and so at each red light, I was stopping to turn around to try and put the dummy back in his mouth,” she says. That’s when she caught a glimpse of what she thought was a police vehicle in her rearview mirror. “I was starting to get a little bit stressed about it, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong but I thought maybe it looked dodgy if you couldn’t tell what I was doing’.”
As the police van stayed on her tail, she began to get increasingly anxious about the prospect of being pulled over. “I started getting sassy in my head about what my response would be: ‘There’s no law, I have a newborn, I’m just trying to get the kids home and one of them is screaming…’” She had been crafting her speech for roughly five minutes when the van finally pulled up next to her at the traffic lights. Her gaze adjusted and it became clear that the iconic yellow and blue stripes were not solid stripes at all, but little men sitting on toilets.
“That’s when I realised I was just looking at the Polite Plumbers,” she laughs. “I had been worrying in vain and they had just been driving behind me very politely.”
With a fleet of seven vans, all boasting the same police-inspired blue and yellow toilet motif, Auckland-based company Polite Plumbers has made a name for itself as the most powerful plumbing prankster on our roads. “I’m actually glad you are doing this story, because the amount of times I’ve seen these frickin’ vans and thought ‘Is this even frickin’ legal’ is crazy,” says Tina, a designer at The Spinoff who has had multiple Polite Plumbers encounters.
Tina recalls one instance where she saw a Polite Plumbers van at a St Luke’s intersection she describes as “feisty” in nature. “You have to pick your openings very wisely, and I was going to hoon – safely, of course – into the lane that I needed to go in, but then I saw this frickin’ police van zooming down.” She refrained from changing lanes for fear she would appear reckless. “The cop might think I’m doing an illegal manoeuvre even though it’s very legal… and then I realised it was just a frickin’ plumber.”
This reaction is nothing new for Steve Terblanche, owner of Polite Plumbers and the mastermind behind the company’s lavatorial take on law enforcement design. Arriving from South Africa seven years ago, Terblanche worked for various plumbing companies while waiting for his residency before he was able to start a business of his own. “I wanted to come up with something spectacular, a brand that you will remember,” he explains over Zoom. “You will forget most plumbing brands in three seconds. But us? You won’t forget us.”
He mulled over the design and name of the business for a few days, before landing on the idea of the police/toilet motif. “I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t that be brilliant?’”
Terblanche, who has no formal experience in design or marketing, quickly whipped up a prototype on his computer of what he wanted: a “cheeky” take on the police vehicle stripe featuring a figure squatting on the toilet. Now that original concept design takes pride and place on Terblanche’s favourite office mug at Polite Plumbers HQ. “This is it,” he says, holding it up to the Zoom camera. “This is what I wanted it to look like.”
Of course, Terblanche had to do his research before he adorned his vehicles to make sure he wouldn’t actually be arrested for impersonating a police officer. “I read all four laws cover to cover, just to make sure we could push it to the absolute maximum limits without getting into trouble,” he says. “As soon as you put a siren on there, you get locked up. As soon as you put anything that looks like a blue light, you get locked up.”
The strict rules extend to his staff too – their Polite Plumbers branded uniforms are distinctly non-police-looking, and they are under strict instructions to behave themselves behind the wheel. “Even if we get angry at a driver and we point at them and somebody takes a photo of us, it can be seen as us trying to pull them over,” he explains. “My guys all stay calm. They know the rules. They just always have to be polite because everybody is looking at you – you can’t even pick your nose.”
Still, Terblanche says the first few outings in the van were nerve-racking. “Although I’d researched and found that it was fine for me to do it, I initially got scared whenever I saw cops,” he says. The first time he stopped next to a cop car, he said that any confusion on the officers’ faces quickly turned to glee. “As soon as they saw the little men sitting on the toilet, they were totally disarmed,” he laughed. “They could see it for what it was.” Subsequently, Terblanche says they had stopped next to thousands of cops, and never had any bother.
The New Zealand Police were approached for comment on this story, and replied promptly: “Thank you for the opportunity but we don’t have any comment to add.”
A surprising byproduct of the design, Terblanche says, is that drivers do behave better when the Polite Plumbers are around. “We’ve heard people tell their kids in the backseat to get down and that people put their seatbelts on, or they drive slower when we’re around,” he says. “It’s also a community service, you know?” Tina confirms this effect. “One was behind me and I was wigging out so I slowed all the way down to 50. I could have been going 55 but no, the polite police man’s plumbers are here.”
Even if the police do eventually ask Treblanche to amend his design, he’s got a plan. “Firstly, I’m going to fight it because it’s not unique to them, and it’s just men on toilets. Secondly, I will just change it to pink. I’ll change it to beautiful, luminous pink and yellow.” In the meantime, he’s chuffed that his distinctive vans are catching the attention of Auckland drivers. “I believe that marketing should be an emotional response. Some people laugh at us, which is an emotional response. Some people growl at us, which is an emotional response. Some get scared of us, which is an emotional response.”
He’s also thinking long term. “I always wanted to be building a brand for the future,” says Terblanche. “Those kids we drive past today who say ‘Oh the men on the toilet, the pooping on the toilet’ – in 20 years time, those kids are going to have their own houses as well. And what’s the one plumbing company they’re going to remember? Us.”
Tina admits that Polite Plumbers are memorable, even if they do cause her turmoil on the roads. “It does put a smile on your face after the emotional roller coaster and stress you’ve just gone through,” she says.
“I just think it’s very ironic that somebody that works with shit is making you shit yourself.”