(NEXSTAR) – Urinal flies: They’re all the buzz in the bathroom. But if you asked a random sampling of friends or acquaintances about them, you’re likely to see at least a few puzzled expressions.
“Why is there a fly printed on the urinal?” some may ask, just like the Reddit user who posed the same question to the platform’s online community earlier this year.
The answer, as childish as it may seem, is pretty obvious to anyone standing in front of a urinal: It’s something to aim at.
Urinal flies — or, more broadly, “urinal targets” — are believed to have existed since at least the 1890s, when pictures of bees, specifically, were sometimes etched into Britain’s toilet bowls, according to May Berenbaum, an entomologist who spoke on the subject with NPR in 2009. (The genus name for the bee is also Apis, which may have even been a winking acknowledgement to its placement). By nearly all accounts, however, the idea only started to go mainstream in the 1990s, after a manager at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam suggested utilizing little fly-shaped decals near the urinals’ drains, to reduce the amount of urine that ended up on the walls and floor.
“The idea came from a dear colleague of mine, Jos van Bedaf, manager of the cleaning department,” said Aad Kieboom, a fellow manager at Schiptol Airport in the early ‘90s, in an interview with Works That Work magazine. “It was such a neat idea that, once I was convinced, it was not difficult to get management on board.” (Bedaf himself reportedly said he got the idea from urinal targets he had seen decades before when he was serving with the army, according to the magazine.)
Reports suggest that Schiphol’s urinal decals reduced errant urine by 80%, but it’s impossible to know how that data was calculated, nor if it’s accurate. A representative for Schiphol Airport could not say where that statistic originated, but did confirm the targets “clearly [made] for improvement.”
The spokesperson also gave an update on the facility’s current urinal innovations.
“Schiphol was indeed the first to utilize this idea at the airport,” Schiphol spokesperson Willemeike Koster told Nexstar of the urinal-based targets. “We still have them, only the fly is now changed into a golf hole.”
Whatever shape they’ve taken over the years, Schiphol’s urinal targets inspired a slow but steady stream of decals, stickers or engravings in other prominent public bathrooms. And they really gained a foothold in the U.S. after making their appearance in the urinals at the renovated Terminal 4 at JFK International Airport in New York City — a terminal which is also owned by the same management company as Schiphol.
It’s also possible that another major urinal innovation — which started to become popular in the mid-to-late-‘90s — can be credited with boosting the popularity of urinal targets across the U.S.
“I do believe that the mark — either a small fly or a target — I believe that gained some prominence with the waterless urinal,” Bill Strang, the president of corporate strategy, e-commerce and customer experience at Toto USA, told Nexstar.
Strang, who has been with Toto for 20 years, said the design of the waterless urinal (a variety Toto does not produce) relies on urine being directed as close to the drain as possible, seeing as there’s no flow of water that would flush it down otherwise.
Adding a little target, Strang said, may have seemed like an easy way for bathroom operators to remind users to “put your stream here.”
Toto, meanwhile, does not include any type of urinal targets on its urinal models. Strang, explaining the decision, said it’s because Toto aims to design its urinals with minimal “splashback” risk — but he also notes that the targets aren’t exactly to Toto’s taste.
“We believe, and this is my personal belief, that [the target] is a little cheeky,” Strang said. “Not that it’s necessarily downmarket, but … we presume that the vast majority of our consumers using the men’s urinal are going to get it into that space that’s it going to be successful.”
Not everyone is so sure about that. Richard Thaler, a Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, frequently uses the concept of a urinal fly as his “favorite” example of what he calls a behavioral “nudge” — a “nudge” being an environmental suggestion that encourages people to alter their behavior without taking away their free will.
“It turns out, that men, when they’re taking care of their business, they’re not fully attending to the task at hand,” Thaler once explained in an interview with Big Think. “But — I’m sure there’s an evolutionary explanation for this — if you give them a target, they will aim.”
Efficacy notwithstanding, urinal targets appear to be big business for at least a few enterprising retailers. A spokesperson for American Standard told Nexstar that the company sends all request for urinal targets to a plumbing dealer in Connecticut, and another Colorado-based company known as UrinalFly.com has been selling decals of flies, targets, boats, and even politicians’ faces since 2009.
Unfortunately, this information probably won’t pacify any puzzled friends who haven’t yet grasped the aim of the concept.
“I find it so weird men have to be tricked into using a toilet properly,” one Redditor remarked upon learning about urinal targets, echoing dozens of similar sentiments from equally baffled users.