Provocative Mr. Clean commercial shakes up Super Bowl

Photo courtesy of Procter & Gamble; Design by Rushika Pandya

Americans tuning into Super Bowl LI for an evening of good football, bombastic halftime entertainment and subversive advertisement were treated to all three.

Though controversy was somewhat expected given the politically-charged nature of the American zeitgeist and the fashionability of making liberal, anti-Trump stands as a marketing method, one commercial stood alone in ruffling some feathers: Mr. Clean.

Mr. Clean burst onto the advertising scene in 1958, initially played by a live actor but transitioning to a burly two-dimensional man with a single earring and a comically large torso narrowing to a lithe waist.

He was typically depicted in this incarnation as a domestic god of sorts, ringing the doorbell when an individual was distressed by the amount of household cleaning they needed accomplished.

Sometimes it is a married couple in which the wife is an expert testifying to the power of Mr. Clean’s cleaning prowess; other times, it is a single woman, living in a suspiciously filthy home.

Is she truly alone? Does she live with roommates? Is she a housewife, lounging and lamenting while her husband and pack of children are away for the day? It is a mystery, but Mr. Clean does not seem to care.

He is there to help, to soothe the pain of washing the floors and the clothes and the windows by simply accomplishing it all himself.

“You can wash the dog, laundry too! Mr. Clean, I love you,” croons one such woman in a 1958 advertisement. Mr. Clean does not seem to reciprocate her romantic advances but instead departs when his job is done. Everyone is happy.

The Mr. Clean of 2017 appears to have a more perverse agenda. In his Super Bowl spot, which Elle Magazine is calling “brilliant” and “sexy,” Mr. Clean arrives to the home of a lone woman lamenting a stove stain and begins both cleaning up and getting dirty.

First his groin is visible in a shot that pans up to his still-bald and still-earring adorned face quickly, but not quickly enough.

He wrings out a sponge — ostensibly his titular Magic Eraser — in one large hand, sending a gush of liquid to the ground.

He stands intimately close to the woman before whirling around in a bizarre and yet hygienic mating dance; he gyrates to the rhythm of the mop firmly stroking the floor from his hands.

Whereas Mr. Clean is animated to be almost lifelike save for the cartoonish glint in his eye, the woman is a live-action, definitely real human being.

It is unclear how much money Proctor and Gamble spent animating all thirty seconds of the ad or if they used motion capture.

One has to wonder how and if the tone would change should Mr. Clean have been replaced by a real human — animation seems to lend an aura of innocence
and harmlessness to the commercial’s premise.

If Mr. Clean were a real man, ripped in all capacities and obviously older judging by the white brows, entering a woman’s home and swaying his hips, would this commercial even have aired?

Would the sexuality have become overt to the point of being inappropriate for young eyes?

The sexualization of Mr. Clean ends up being comical when it is revealed that he is nothing more than a specter, imagined by the woman to represent her decidedly un-sexy husband who is trying to clean.

Herein lies the secret to the runaway success of this advertisement, the origin of the memes and hundreds of middle-aged women swooning on Facebook, that yes, this definitely was the best Super Bowl commercial this year.

As far as advertising executives can tell, women are so exhausted by the notion of housework and cleaning that the thought of not doing those things is arousing. The sheer value of not being confined to gendered conceptions of housekeeping is an aphrodisiac, liberating and exciting and bolstering to the ego. In fact, this sensual reincarnation of a classic cleaning product persona may have been foreshadowed by Mr. Clean winning one of People Magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive in 1998. Even 20 years ago, women found his cleanliness attractive.

Women have better things to do than mop and scrub the stove, and being trapped in the predicament of choosing between the two spheres has been present since and before the 1950s.

A man who offers to take away such menial tasks, foregoing whatever manly work he has to do, might as well be built like Idris Elba and have the moves of Patrick Swazye in
“Dirty Dancing.”

Get you a man who can do both, as one might say in internet parlance.

This Super Bowl was rife with high-budget advertisements competing to make the sneakiest political statement; 84 Lumber, for example, aired a short of a mother and daughter’s immigration journey from Mexico to the U.S., and their website soon crashed.

But among the drama of politically charged commercials and the spectacle of Lady Gaga’s half time show was one commercial with no agenda but to be provocative and silly.

Similar in a way to the “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon, Sexy Mr. Clean borders on ridiculous pandering but is just self-aware enough to be interesting.

Maybe his antics will boost bleach and Magic Eraser sales, or perhaps his new image will damage sales irrevocably because no one can bear to look Mr. Clean in the eyes. Regardless of the financial effect on the Procter & Gamble Company, an impact was made that still ripples through the streams of the internet almost a week later.