Last June, I shared some observations about how das Unheimliche is employed in Maytag advertising that features the newest model of their Maytag Man spokesman. A year later, this great advertising icon is back in a new tv ad that has doubled-down on his inherent uncanniness…by framing the character as but one clone in a soldier factory full of them.
The ad plays off the conceit of the character, who, essentially stands in for high-end appliances, imbuing the commodity with personality, voice and spirit. Ad Week calls this particular ad “a hyper-patriotic sci-fi comedy” that is rife with national pride, “set at the company’s factory in Marion, Ohio…[which] features real Maytag employees, and a giant American flag.”
But does it really “feature” the “real” employees, or subordinate them to silence beneath the mechanics of labor on the stage of a dominantly mechanized and robotic workplace?
Yes, it’s neat that the actual workers are included in this advertisement, and it’s a supportive gesture on the part of the company. But the points I raised last year about the uncanny in these renewed Maytag ads are still fully at play, especially the anxiety it sublimates regarding the replacement of man with machine, refracted through an icon of the machine as man. The old schlub of a Maytag Man — the loveable repairman who has nothing to do because his namesake products are so persistently reliable — has been replaced with the appliance itself. The commodity has become the worker who produces it. The persistent message remains that these commodities — domestic machines — are more reliable than humans when it comes to work. As I wrote last year, he “has transformed from a character we can identify with into a literalized metaphor — and something of an uncanny Other who is both like us and nothing like us at all.”
In this particular ad, the Maytag Man himself (after getting his teeth polished by a robot, a la Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times) claims there’s “a certain standard you have to live up to” with products that are made in America. The point is that his body on the product line is manufactured at high quality. But the narrative of the ad is actually telling us a story about the male body here. It is not just a mechanical quality that he is talking about, but a fantasy of reproduction. Right after he discuss his “certain standard” of quality, the scene is followed by a funny shot where he gets the “sexy whistle” from a pair of onlooking factory workers as his newly-minted clone body is wheeled by. If you review the entire ad, you can’t help but see further subtle sexual references — in self-referential phrases like “big beautiful monuments…to dependability,” and shots like the “Spiderman love scene” moment where an up-ended Maytag clone is suspended upside-down kissing distance from a factory worker. While in the narrative proper the “body” of these male clones is substituting for the mechanical “body” of a washing machine, the machines are really secondary to the sexual/nationalistic ideologies at play in this comedy. Indeed, the uncanny humor at work in the ad depends on such issues, all within the context of the male-dominated workplace. This is what proceeds the domestic bliss of a wash room or kitchen. This is the sphere of masculinity. And there are homoerotic overtones everywhere.
The conventionally “uncanny” elements of the advertisement speak to these matters, but also divert our attention from them. It doesn’t just feature the equivalent of unheimlich “clones” in the foreground, but also relies on the production line manned by factory robots in the background. The human actors interact blindly with this world of artificial intelligence; they are secondary to nearly all of the automatic processes that are displayed, and part of the humor in the ad derives from their lack of conscious awareness of the larger consciousness at work here and the “secret” intentionality of all these machines. Perhaps it even implies that what keeps all this artificial intelligence alive are workers themselves, all the same, like clones performing redundant scripted acts of labor, just like robots, themselves. We see the cloned Maytag Men interacting socially with one another in the ad (“Good job, JB… Looking good Carl”) but the “real” workers are virtually silent and oblivious.
Aside from the “sexy whistle” moment, there is a strange fracture in the advert, when the spokesclone is interrupted by an offscreen voice that shouts “engineered” while he is delivering his pitch: “…because when you’re a washer that’s designed — ENGINEERED! — and manufactured in America…” Here we may be hearing the voice of human agency, invisible-but-assertive about the quality of the “brains” behind the design of the machine. But who has the authority on this factory floor to serve up such an assertive corrective? Who dares shout down the messaging of the ad? A floor supervisor? An elite engineer? Perhaps the camera crew? We do not know for certain, but the only other fracture to the smoothly-flowing narrative occurs in its punchline, when the screen wipes the Maytag Man/Men away to reveal the rows of identical washing machines themselves, lined up dress-right-dress. The machine is now dead matter, inorganic metal, lifelessly inanimate — neither clone nor robot…but an uncanny presence, hiding these secrets.
It’s a brilliant advertisement, upfront in its fetishism of the commodity, and firmly in the canon of the Popular Uncanny.