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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.

On “National Opt-Out Day,” Healing the TSA’s Relationship With The Public

(Note: I work for a component of the Department of Homeland Security,
but am writing this post independently.)

Today's Washington Post
covers "National Opt-Out Day," a citizen protest day against the
current scanner/patdown policy that is scheduled for today, the travel
day before Thanksgiving 2010. Basically, they're going to jam the
lines purposely.

The weather is supposed to be bad in some parts of the country on this
busy travel day, so the fury on both sides could rise to significant
heights if a lot of people start missing their flights.

Some key facts and statistics as backdrop:

• There are 400+ imaging machines at 70 airports
• Imaging takes less than a minute
• A full body patdown takes twice as long (or more) as imaging
• 50% oppose patdowns (today's USA Today says it's "nearly 6 in 10")
• 32% oppose the scanners (USA Today has it at 42%)
• Roughly 1 million patdowns so far under the new (more intrusive) policy
• ~ 2,000 complaints filed

The collective sentiment of the "experts" interviewed for the article:
The opponents of the policy are uninformed, "fringe." Today's protest
is "going to be a huge bust," said one.

I find myself wondering what planet these experts are on. They don't
seem to get – it hasn't penetrated their brains – that public support
is critical to the effectiveness of government policy. It doesn't
matter if they're right and the public is wrong. If you alienate the
people you are trying to protect, you will not be able to protect

• There is nonstop citizen coverage of this issue on the Web, from
YouTube to the Drudge Report to Twitter
• 600,000+ people have visited the "We Won't Fly" protest website site
in 2 weeks
• There are opt-out events planned for 20 airports today
• College students in Phoenix are going to hand out radiation
registering devices and gloves for TSA officers today
• San Francisco will see a passenger-rights group monitoring the TSA
with ABC's Nightline
• There will be a demonstration in Philadelphia

Mainstream media news has picked up on citizen interest in this issue,
running a seemingly endless series of stories. There have been Senate
hearings on it. Even Saturday Night Live parodied the TSA situation in
a truly funny skit last week.

The bottom line is, there is a schism between what people are thinking
and feeling about this issue, and the attitude of those promoting the

Interestingly, I don't see evidence of a bad attitude in TSA
leadership itself. TSA Administrator John Pistole consistently shows
empathy and sympathy for the traveling public.

• In an interview with CNN, he took responsibility for the horror
story of a traveler whose patdown left him covered in his own urine in
public, even noting that the TSA had reached out to him personally and
that the traveler would be providing training to the officers in the
• Pistole's comments to the Post also focused on the experience of the
traveler. He didn't say how "right" he was, but rather said: "If large
numbers of people do intentionally slow down that process, I don't
think we can avoid people not making their flights on time," he said.

Pistole's communication team also has shown a commitment to being
responsive, reacting to the public on the TSA blog and participating
in discussions at government-centric websites such as

Clearly something has gone awry when you care about the public and are
trying to help them, but the public doesn't trust you to do your job.

I think there is still time for TSA to make something positive out of
this whole situation and recapture the public trust. Here are some

• Post, transparently, as much information as possible about all the
concerns that the public is expressing. These fall into two
categories: the effectiveness of the patdown procedure, as well as the
machines, as versus other security methods; and possible incorrect
influence of others on the security decisions.
• Post interviews with experts both in favor of and against the
current policies on the website.
• Host a town hall to engage citizen concerns, then transcribe and
release the results.
• Allow travelers to video or audiotape their inspection
• Engage the officers in sessions to discuss their thoughts, feelings
and concerns and implement their suggestions in the airport
• Produce volumes outreach materials that respond to passenger
concerns and place them visibly in the TSA area of the airport
• Reach out to the most visible of opponents and discuss their
concerns directly

The bottom line is, just because you listen to your opponents, doesn't
mean that you agree with them or will do as they say.

It all goes back to credibility. If your audience sees you as
trustworthy, they will give you permission to do what needs to be
done. But if they see you as abusing your power, they will ultimately
thwart even the best of security policies.

Branding: Undrinking the Kool-Aid

We are drawn to the things we need to overcome in life.

I studied sociology in graduate school. At the time all I knew was
that I couldn't think of a better option. All my life "they" told me
to become a lawyer, and then I wanted to be a fashion designer, and
then a writer and possibly a social worker. None of these made any
sense for me, and I didn't have a career counselor urging me to go out
and get an MBA in marketing like I was probably meant to do. So I got
a fellowship to study sociology, which I knew nothing about, and
wouldn't have even followed through with if not for a former roommate
who – although we weren't best of friends – took mercy on me and let
me know about the offer after I had already moved out.

So I guess you could say that I became a sociologist because I
couldn't figure out what to do with myself. But as soon as I walked
through the doors of The Graduate School (CUNY), I felt like I was
(intellectually) home. Not to name drop, but what the heck: I read
Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Mead, Goffman, Freud, (struggled with)
Lacan. I learned more about feminist theory, although frankly I didn't
like sitting in feminist class as much as I liked being the rebellious
kid in yeshiva reading Gloria Steinem's "Revolution from Within" (and
all variants of radical feminism).

I really liked graduate school. In fact I loved it. I loved that there
were people who spent all day studying really cool things (cool to me,
that is) – how narcissistic personality disorder among CEOs marries up
nicely with our social expectations of what a leader ought to be and
do (Catherine Silver); why most people, like sheep, study the liberal
arts when they will end up taking more or less narrow and technical
jobs (Stanley Aronowitz); how we seem to have little moral rules for
the slightest things we do, even such things as saying hello and how
are you (Lindsey Churchill). Also stuff related to mothering (Barbara
Katz Rothman). Each and every one of these people, I was fortunate to
be around and learn directly from.

I never, ever, in a million years, dreamed I'd end up in marketing. As
much as I struggled with all the 'isms in graduate school -
psychoanalytic sociology, structuralism, functionalism, conflict
theory, symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, postmodernism – I
somehow believed that one day I'd be teaching.

That didn't happen, but I have never felt for one day that my
schooling was wasted. It gave me the confidence to go into marketing
later on knowing one critical thing: The way things are is not a
given. You have the power to shape society, for good or bad, through
the power of understanding and (yes) manipulating group behavior.
Hopefully you use it for the good.

I also learned that what other people say is good or bad, or right and
wrong, is not the definition of reality. Follow your beliefs, your
conscience, your heart, or your freely chosen religious framework. But
don't let other people dictate who you are.

Unfortunately, the first realization came way before the second. When
I accidentally stepped into the world of marketing – almost as
accidentally as I became a sociologist – I became enthralled with the
wizardry of this incredible field. It was like finding gold. But at
the same time, I ended up in a profession that is all about
brainwashing people. And I brainwashed myself into thinking about it
uncritically, at least at first. All that mattered was learning the
trade; the social criticism that had always been so important to me
would have to wait.

Now I am reading more and more about the damage that branding, and
brands can do. I am still fascinated by them, but it is also time to
question and undo. Sort of like if you discovered the atom bomb, and
then had to develop a nuclear containment program, or at least a way
to deploy these weapons responsibly.

Not that I'm apologizing (OK, I am), but I was brought up not to
question. My family was untraditional, but also traditional, part of a
quiet, Jewish community in the suburbs. It was the Reagan years – "Mr.
Gorbachev, tear down that wall!" – and I watched shows like Family
Ties, where Alex P. Keaton lectured his hippie parents to stop living
in the counterculture and go along with the preppy materialistic ethic
of the time. It was funny, but then again it wasn't: We really were
supposed to think that way.

Interestingly, I didn't care one bit about logos or their importance
until my peers started to make fun of and exclude me for not having
them. Frankly, I was happier before brands entered my life, when all I
worried about was painting cool murals for Color War in camp, and
playing tetherball till my fingers broke – literally. But when brands
became an issue of honor, I strangely became enthralled with them –
they had the power to save me from uncoolness. And that was when I
became bound, brainwashed, to the redemptive power of the logo, even
though I had never heard of the term "brand."

Of course there were counter-currents. I read like crazy, for example.
And from books I learned that there were other ways of thinking and
doing. Not one any particular thing, but everything. But in my mind, I
still separated the world of books from the world I lived in. In that
world, particularly the world of the religious community, there was
certainty and fact. There was right, wrong; moral and immoral;
fashionable and unfashionable; and so on.

Everything got undermined eventually. I don't know when, I don't know
how. It wasn't any particular event. But it seemed like all my friends
and I went through the same thing. Like we were on our own, while our
parents worked. Seemingly all the time. And the things we learned in
school, didn't jive with reality. It was a faint and imperceptible
schism. But it was broader than me and my friends. It was reflected in
the movies I still consider "mine," where the main character is
disillusioned by hypocrisy, finds solace in friends or an individual
purpose, and moves on. All the John Hughes movies, Less Than Zero, Say
Anything, and other similar films portrayed characters that I
identified with, who were navigating a world where the sand had
suddenly shifted beneath their feet. Suddenly everything that seemed
reliable, wasn't. The adults were sleeping at the wheel. And we were
on our own. Later, every book by Bret Easton Ellis – despite them
being truly misogynistic, horrible, bloody – I gobbled up because I
sensed that he was onto something.

I found out later that I had grown up in Generation X. If it had been
an upbringing where conformity worked really well for me, I might have
bought into it. But quite honestly, doing what everybody else did and
thinking like a robot wasn't my thing and never brought me much
reward. Recently I read a column in The Wall Street Journal by Scott
Adams, the "Dilbert guy," that made the same point: Before he started
Dilbert, he worked for boneheads in a traditional workplace, and
noticed everyone suffering similarly. Everyone seemed to start their
own business on the side because they recognized that conformity,
trying to climb the traditional ladder, is a waste of time.

Anyway, I always knew that I should question everything. Graduate
school gave me the justification and the words: "social construction."
Meaning, everything we take for granted is created by people, more
specifically people in groups who tell other people what to do until
eventually they join the group themselves or leave to start their own.

Brands are a social construction. And the people who make them are
deeply invested in convincing as many people as possible that their
product is automatically right and normal.

I am starting to see the negative implications of this. I don't
understand how I've been blind for so long. Can it really have been
all about popularity? If so, how shallow and sad! Still – maybe it's
true. I read Naomi Klein's No Logo. I am a social critic. I have
always thought for myself. But still, there is something about brands,
and branding, that has held me as if in a spell.

How could I, along with many other people who thought they were savvy,
have been brainwashed by branding? I have some ideas, but the bottom
line it is, it doesn't matter. Though I love my field as much as ever,
I have decided that it's time for me, personally, to sort the wheat
from the chaff, to take some responsibility for the harm of
perpetuating a branded world. Aside from the obvious - exploitive
labor practices and pricing for example – there are others that are
quieter but no less poisonous. For example, in promoting a culture of
automatic decision-making, brands make it easy to do the wrong thing
and easy to demonize thinking people as "crazy" when they're actually
more sane than the people promoting bad brands.

Rather than dismiss branding altogether, It's time to examine and take
apart the things that are good about it from the things that are bad.
I have decided to spend more time talking about using brands for good;
making transparent what brands do that is bad; and thinking in general
about the ethical dimensions of branding. We'll see where this roads
leads to; I hope you find it interesting.

MSG or Aspartame: What Brand Ingredient Will You Thank for Your Thanksgiving "Pigout"?

Yesterday I happened to flip through this month's Health magazine (which features an amazing-looking Janet Jackson BTW - between her and Emma Thompson, who thought the pixie haircut could look so good on so many?) and see an interesting "diagram" purporting to help you avoid the traditional Turkey Day pigout.

(Photo source: Health Magazine)

Normally I am one of those people who reads such diagrams intently, trying to understand why this factor or that has led me to overindulge in the party tray full of chips or the brownies piled high on the side.

On this particular day however I had been testing the argument being made by a variety of doctors and medical researchers that MSG and aspartame make you crave food, and therefore, get fat. Names include:

* Kevin Trudeau - "More Natural Cures Revealed"
* Suzanne Somers - "Breakthrough"
* Mike Adams - Web articles under the name "The Health Ranger"
* Dr. Joseph Mercola - Website
* Dr. Russell Blaylock - Web articles and interview in Somers' book.

(Google all these names for more info if you're interested.)

Anyway, these people have quite a bit to say about the unnatural state of our environment and our diets. While it might seem drastic to hear that pretty much every brand you use is a problem, I tested the thesis about MSG and aspartame out of purely selfish reasons.

I am here to tell you the following:

* The minute I ate or drank anything containing aspartame I spent the rest of the day eating sweets or refined carbs.
* The minute I ate anything containing MSG or anything related to it, I experienced elevated hunger the rest of the day.
* Every processed food in my cabinets had MSG, including every soup, sauce, Mac & Cheese mix, pre-prepared rice mix, everything.

Eating out, the prospects aren't much better.

Interestingly, I had a Subway vegi delite with a scoop of tuna for lunch and another for dinner. And didn't put anything with preservatives on the sandwich, didn't have any of the salad dressings either. (Looked up the bread ingredients and couldn't find MSG). Thank goodness, I felt OK.

So maybe this year, if you're worried about a might want to choose a simple tuna sandwich.

Brands are neither good or bad but what we make of them. It's up to us to open our eyes and reward them for being "good."

Crazy for QR, Mastercard Risks Alienating Its Audience

Everybody loves those “Priceless” ads by Mastercard, where they do an admirable job of connecting their brand with everything valuable in life. Who hasn’t seen the tagline:

“There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Mastercard.”

But when it comes to the new communication technology known as the QR Code, they seem to have gone absolutely crazy.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the QR code enables the advertiser to put a lot of communication in a little space – and have the user opt into it. Forgive me for sounding like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde here, but they put a little black and white barcode-looking thing somewhere on an ad, you scan the code (it looks like a UPC code on a package), and the user gets more information, offers, etc. (See BBC example below.)

Shel Holtz wrote a good blog on this in September 2010.

QR codes are really cool and we’re going to be seeing a lot of them in the future.

But what’s stupid, from a brand perspective, is when a brand uses a communication technology like this, which most people aren’t familiar or comfortable with, and places it on an ad as if it were “normal,” without any explanation of how to use it.

In the case of Mastercard on the DC Metro, all they said was “scan the code.”

When I did that, using Barcode Scanner on my Android phone, absolutely nothing happened.

My response? I felt 1) stupid and 2) peeved (that’s the nice word for what I mean here) and 3) decided that Mastercard as a brand was out of touch with me, the customer.

I don’t think most Mastercard users are familiar with QR, because the brand is decidedly mass in its base and appeal, and QR is still very narrow. Yet the placement of the QR on the page was pronounced.

The lesson for brands: Don’t incorporate communication strategies that are out of sync with your customer base. Otherwise you risk alienating them, while achieving no benefit in return.