A vacuum ad that doesn't suck.

Advertising deconstructed.
Dec. 15 2003 11:45 AM

Hoover Glam

The ad that makes vacuums seem cool.

I'm gonna buy you, sucka! Spot: "Doesn't Fade"

Product: Dyson DC07 upright vacuum

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Synopsis: This 30-second ad consists of just five shots (I count about 12-15 in the average ad).

Shot 1: Shuffling feet. A man vacuums a carpeted floor.

Shot 2: A dust-clogged filter is pulled from the vacuum.

Shot 3: Close-up on the filter, coated with dirt and hair. Thin dust clouds emanate.

(Over these shots, in voiceover, a man with a British accent complains that his vacuum quickly clogs with dust.)

Shot 4: The man in a factory, speaking to the camera. "So I thought I'd try and design something better. And a few thousand prototypes later, I had it."

Shot 5: Dramatic, profile view of a gorgeous vacuum, isolated and floating on a black background. Voiceover: "No bags, no clogged-up filters, and the first vacuum that doesn't lose suction." The signature "James Dyson" appears near the vacuum, then morphs into a lower-case, sans-serif logo: "dyson."

Analysis: This is the toniest vacuum ad I've ever seen. I think it may redefine the category.

The first time I saw this ad, I tried to recall ads for other vacuum brands, and for the life of me I couldn't think of any. (Perhaps I don't watch enough daytime TV, but I think it's more to do with the blandosity of vacuum marketing.) And then suddenly I remembered: Oreck! You know Oreck—the ads with the bald guy and the vacuum that lifts a 16-pound bowling ball.

In many ways, the Dyson and Oreck campaigns are remarkably similar. Each puts the titular company head (James Dyson, David Oreck) front and center, pitching his own product. Each builds a narrative (Dyson hated existing vacs, so he invented a better one; hotel maids asked to bring home Oreck's commercial vacuums, so he made a retail version). And the ad copy all ultimately centers on the superior performance of the vacuum, as opposed to its low, low price, or whatever.

Yet at heart these campaigns are radically different. Take the opening of the Dyson ad: It's a long, static, carefully framed shot, with an intriguing floor-level camera placement—it reminded me of films by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, famous for his eye-level-of-person-sitting-on-tatami-mat shots. By contrast, the Oreck ads resemble local news channel b-roll—shoulder-mounted cameras bouncing about, straining to focus on poorly lit, frumpy housewives. And of course there are the spokesmen: James Dyson, British engineer, close-cropped gray hair, stylishly faded T-shirt; David Oreck, Louisiana salesman, shiny-pated, plump in his salesman's suit.

This is not to pick on David Oreck (though, full disclosure, I tested these vacuums and loved the Dyson, while I felt the Oreck offered poor value. And by the way, the bowling ball thing is a sham). What's interesting is that while these two campaigns target totally opposite consumers—Dyson going posh, Oreck going lunch pail—the vacuums themselves are quite comparably priced. Dyson has two models at Target, one for $400 and one for $500. Oreck's three signature models (at Oreck.com) cost $300, $400, and $500. Despite Oreck's lowbrow ethos, he's hitting very similar price points.

So, at purchase time, what's differentiating these products? Maybe it's perceived performance. Both tout their own capabilities, but you may find James Dyson more believable (British accents go a long way!), or you may be swayed by the bowling ball (don't say I didn't warn you). But I think it's something else. I think, like many a purchase decision, this is all about consumer identity.

Oreck targets heartland housewives. They identify with the testimonials from other housewives in the ads. They may even identify with Oreck-loving hotel maids, who clean up other folk's messes day after day. But who is James Dyson targeting?

I'd say he longs to be the Apple of vacuums. (But with better market share.) As with Apple ads—and Volkswagen ads, for that matter—consumers who identify with the Dyson brand will assess it as cleverer than its rivals; its clientele a slightly rarer breed. The Dyson spot creates a certain velvet rope mentality. You have to be a little bit inside to fully "get" it: In stark contrast with David Oreck, James Dyson never says his own name, or his product's name, and in fact the brand name is never spoken at all—astonishing for a product still in the launch stage. Dyson relies on the vacuum's iconic look in the last shot (it's sort of the iMac of vacuums, boldly styled with a gray and yellow palette), and on the logo that pops up only in the spot's final seconds. Dyson buyers, in my opinion, will choose this vacuum not because it cleans the best (though it may), and not because it's the best value (debatable), but because this vacuum is cool.

I don't think any vacuum model has tried to be cool before. It's a novel branding idea, and I'm eager to see if it works. Dyson clearly does something right—the company is now market-share leader in Western Europe. It remains to be seen if he can conquer these shores, but I expect he'll have some success. It's not just housewives who clean. Cool people need vacuums, too.

Grade: A-. Directorial restraint and concision meet a well-considered brand strategy.

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