It was the new Febreze commercial that captured my attention (other air fresheners are available). The lazy oaf of a husband resides nonchalantly in his chair, breaking wind and scoffing burgers. What a stench he is creating! Fortunately his dutiful wife arrives- laundry basket in hand- to clean up after her spouse. At a time when we have a female US presidential candidate, Angela Merkel is practically running Europe and the CEO of PepsiCo, one of the world’s biggest corporations is female; why do cleaning adverts continue to preach a century old ‘Angel of the House’ narrative.
Febreze is just a single example of the cleaning industry’s reinforcement of antiquated gender ideals. Most marketing for cleaning goods use the same formula. Woman has dirty house, woman cleans, and woman is content; implicitly suggesting her life revolves around domestic chores and is somehow emancipated by this work. Be it Febreze, Persil or Fairy the female relishes devoting herself to household maintenance while her better half is nowhere to be seen.
Over the last 50 years little has changed in cleaning product advertising. From Persil’s 1940s beaming housewife leant over the sink, to Fairy’s outrageous 2012 slogan ‘it takes a lot of dishes to make mum an athlete’; the industry continues to promulgate this ‘Domestic Goddess’ character. Indeed just two years ago Cillit Bang’s Spanish advert featured no less than 32 women and not a single male. It appears four waves of feminism passed by Cillit’s PR team unnoticed.
Many marketing campaigns have even resorted to sexualizing women in order to shift products. Back in 2006 a camisole clad Jodie Kidd perched provocatively over a dishwasher for Fairy’s advertising campaign while Naomi Campbell donned seductive black lingerie to flog Persil’s green formula. These adverts were perverted in every sense of the word. Indeed one could be forgiven for assuming they were selling underwear, or even something more lascivious! Dismiss this as the ravings of a feminist with a bee in her bonnet, but how many of us strip down to our undies to soak the dirty dishes? For one, scalding water would be a health and safety hazard.
“But plenty of men promote domestic products” I hear you say. True, over the last decade cleaning ads have scrubbed up their act (pun intended) and now generally pursue cleverer campaigns than Campbell’s brazen display. Bear Grylls and Ainsley Harriot have both done stints brandishing a bottle of soap. However Gryll’s endorses detergent for the macho male adventurer, while women featured using disinfectant stay firmly within the confines of a kitchen. While this is not the overt bigotry of mid 1900’s cleaning ads, Febreze’s subtle drip feed of a domesticated female is arguably more damaging than more blatant typecasting, discretely fuelling gender divisions.
Admittedly by using female actors advertisers are appealing to their target market. Statistics published by the University of Ulster reveal 2/3 of women described themselves as principally responsible for the household chores. Thus focussing their primary customer is in fact sound adverting. Yet other industries have launched very successful campaigns revering the diversity of their consumers by dismantling gender, racial and class stereotypes. Indeed, Lloyds’ ‘he said yes’ commercial, featuring a homosexual couple has been hailed as a pioneering project, as has Dove’s celebration of all body shapes in their advertisements. Meanwhile cleaning adverts continue to endorse an antiquated and, dare I say it, misogynistic view of women.
Instead the industry should use their ads to eliminate entrenched sexism not cement it. Advertising is not merely a reflection of popular culture; it has the power to shape it, particularly in this digitalised age of cookies and social media. Think back to the successful British Heart Foundation ‘quit smoking’ crusade depicting the hideous interior of a cigarette. If this inspired a reported 140,000 individuals to abandon their habit, there is vast potential for canny cleaning advertising.
Starring men removing stains from a shirt, scrubbing dishes or scouring the loos would go a long way in normalizing male participation in domestic chores; tasks that according to Ulster University 15 million men in the UK already complete. Something sharp and snappy like Stonewall’s slogan, ‘Some People are gay, get over it’ could ignite the Twittersphere and open up debates around gender roles- not to mention generate huge publicity for cleaning brands.
So in Persil’s next advert rather than a mother cleaning up after her son’s mess, perhaps his father could take responsibility? Or maybe detergent could be depicted coming in useful for a female cyclist? The industry needs to stop endorsing this submissive image of women, and join the 21st century in representing the modern woman.
Written by Isobel Duxfield