Saturday, November 27, 2010

Swiffer, Pine-Sol, and the Brilliant Exploitation of Women’s Fantasies About Housework

Three reasons why I initially loved the Swiffer brand:

  • A dedicated Gen Xer who loves ‘80s pop culture and music, I love The Human League song “Don’t You Want Me” – featured in its TV commercial
  • A dedicated mom who counts herself a feminist too, I liked the “women are in power” theme of the commercial
  • It seemed like Swiffer was promising to actually do a better job than anything that came before it, and the ad was so slick I thought “there must be some truth to this”. The website does say: “A great clean on virtually any floor in up to half the time.”

Of course, I didn’t think about any of this in detail. I just liked it. Countless times I passed the Swiffer display in the grocery store and asked myself, “It looks good. Should I buy this?”

The only thing stopping me was the price. It seemed a bit expensive, and wasteful to buy a Swiffer.

Still, clearly the brand is incredibly popular.

  • According to BusinessWeek (January 2010), it’s one of “20 Products that Rocked the Stock Market.”
  • The first year Swiffer was on the market, the share price of parent company Procter & Gamble rose 130%
  • According to, in the 3rd quarter of 2010, Swiffer was 1 of the top 5 grocery brands, along with Tide, Clorox, Huggies and Febreze

I asked my friend Michelle what she used to clean her home. She said that her mother had long ago advised her to use a steam mop, the Shark, and she loved it.

I didn’t know anyone who used the Swiffer.

Meanwhile, I kept on using what I had always used. Plain ammonia. Plain vinegar. Paper towels. Wipe.

I kept wanting to buy the Swiffer, but it was just so damn expensive. A quick price comparison from

  • 1 gallon of “Mizkan Americas Inc 072412004037 Pantry Mate White Distilled Vinegar” (plain white vinegar): ~ $4
  • 1 gallon of Swiffer “multipurpose cleaning solution”: ~ $13 (requires $20 investment in Swiffer WetJet Starter Kit, which includes cleaning solution)

Both the products are safe.

I saw another commercial, for Pine-Sol. This one showed an African-American woman bossing a Caucasian man around. She literally says, "That's The Power of Pine-Sol." The power to end sexism? Wow! It's amazing what a cleaner can do!

When you really think about it, Swiffer and Pine-Sol are selling the message, not the function. Any corrosive irritant can clean. But not every corrosive irritant can let a woman doing housework feel like a queen. These brands are subconsciously sending women who are engaged in housework message specifically designed to fit today’s cultural codes. Messages like:

  • “You’re still responsible for the drudge-work of housecleaning, but when you do it smartly by buying our brand, you can flip that around and call yourself empowered.”
  • “You may still be subject to sexism, but at least when you’re housecleaning, you can be the one in charge.”

These messages are specifically sub-coded to hit women based on sensitivities and stereotypes that are connected with race:

  • All the Swiffer ads I've seen show Caucasian women. The women seem to be obsessed, Martha-Stewart-like, about keeping their perfect, upper-class suburban homes clean. The issue here seems to be guilt over wanting to do something else besides cleaning. The guilt has turned into a fear of not cleaning the home well enough. Using Swiffer allows you to do a great job and do it fast, so you can get out of there and go back to work.
  • The commercials aimed at African-American women imply that by using Pine-Sol, they reverse the usual power equation, in which they do not have the upper hand at all, and become a kind of queen. (The Pine-Sol ad literally shows this.) The issue seems to be that for African-American women, cleaning the home is a degrading experience. The implication is that the home she is cleaning is not her own. The message is that Pine-Sol puts the woman, who may or may not own the home, into a position of ultimate power, where she is actually ordering a male figure around (either Caucasian or African-American, depending on the ad.)

I am tempted to say that these ads are an improvement over "Mr. Clean," which portrayed the helpless housewife "rescued" by a strong and capable housecleaner who took care of the dirty work for her. Again, here is the exploitation of a female fantasy created by a sexist culture: The woman really doesn't want to be cleaning the home at all. She is hostile toward the concept and toward the gender imbalance that says she has to do the cleaning. So she imagines that a kindly and strong man (one who fits society's image of masculinity) handles it all and sets her life right, freeing her from cleaning so she can attend to other things. Her attitude is to practically weep with gratitude, when inside she feels precisely the opposite - angry at being stuck with this job.

When you don't analyze this stuff, it gets taken for granted. When you say it out loud, it sounds not only stupid, but even kind of crazy that anyone makes up this stuff, or buys into it.

Yet it all has an effect. Look at the runaway success of housecleaning brands such as Swiffer.

The reality is, most women I know don’t have a “secret romance with cleaning.” Cleaning tools don’t “empower” anyone. I know I'm usually too busy to clean. Things get messy again pretty fast, anyway.

When we do clean, doesn't it make sense to divide up the work? Don't people do this already? Why are the ads so heavy on featuring women? Unless men just don't clean at all?

On top of that, why should we pay three times as much for one cleaner as another? The job is always the same.

Real empowerment is not having to do the housework at all and if you have to do it, certainly not paying extra.

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the choices that we all have. We can choose to do housework, or not. We can choose to buy into the Swiffer or any other cleaning brand's fantasy, or not. Most importantly, We can choose to decode the messages that brands send us, or simply to enjoy them. That, to me, is true progress over a past when all of the cultural messages concerning housecleaning went unquestioned and taken for granted.

Brands, although they make their money from exploiting our emotions, can also be seen as neutral conveyors of messages and even vehicles for raising our consciousness about the need for social change.