If you watch commercial television, you may have been surprised to see this year that the Maytag Man has gotten an extreme makeover.
The Maytag Man — aka “Ol’ Lonely” – is one of those classic icons of advertising — as commonly known as Ronald McDonald, the Michelin Man and the Energizer Bunny — due to its recurring appearance across decades of commercials broadcast on American TV. The Maytag Man has existed for almost half-a-century, since 1967, and while he’s been played by four different actors (my favorite being WKRP‘s Gordon Jump), his trademarked blue uniform, omnipresent cap and haggard appearance is unmistakable. You might not have seen him for awhile, but you probably remember him: the blue uniformed repair man, frumpy, bored, sleeping on his arm when he’s not otherwise mildly perturbed because he never gets called in for repairs.
It has been a cute, occasionally touching, but more often hilarious ad series. And the ads worked well on audiences because they made us feel sorry for him (the very first ad in ’67 called him “the loneliest man in town” and he’s acted that way ever since). The advertisements effectively sent the message: Maytag appliances are built so well they won’t ever need servicing by a repairman. They are infallibly reliable.
Or has the ad campaign been suggesting, consciously or not, that machines are more reliable than humans altogether? In the case of Ol’ Lonely, we never see him perform his actual job: repairing household appliances. Instead, his work is sitting around all day, waiting for use, moping about being discarded like a sad old tool in the toolchest. Great for Maytag, but bad news for humanity: you have been replaced by a washer-dryer. The Maytag Man was, in other words, a generalized symbol of the 20th century worker, embodying a subtle fear that we might be rendered useless, replaced by machines. It taps into the same alienating anxiety workers have when they see their jobs replaced by robots, but it’s smoothed over by humor and a celebration of the efficiency of the American production line.
Of course, we probably didn’t consciously think of the Maytag Man that way, mostly because we just want domestic machines like washers and dryers that work and don’t want to have to pay high repair bills for high-end appliances. But as a representative of mechanical perfection, by virtue of human obsolescence, he also got kind of old and outdated as we moved into the 21st century, and this January he was officially retired and replaced by a new, younger, more muscular man (played by Colin Ferguson)…who now quite literally IS the machine itself. (“He’s as tough and dependable as a Maytag appliance…Because he IS a Maytag Appliance,” their advertising proudly announces).
In the new series of advertisements, the Maytag Man speaks directly to the camera, as if the product were its own announcer, proudly boasting of his many qualities while mimicking the actions of the variety of appliances that the company has to offer. It’s a funny, effective pantomime. His body delivers the message of steady reliability and strength as much as his limbs perform mechanical behavior in a way that seems detached from his spokesman presence — for instance, when he plays the refrigerator, he runs in place while holding food products, speaking steadily and keeping his head fixed in place; or when he plays the dryer, he spins an impossible ball of clothing in front of him, constantly working while addressing the audience in a comically dramatic way.
The Maytag Man has evolved — now a 5th generation of the icon — but it would be oversimplifying things to accept the premise that he has just been “updated” as a commercial icon to keep up with the times, injected with a sense of knowing irony. It is true that he is more modern in the world of advertising, for he now has his own social media identity — with accounts on twitter and facebook that not only stream new ads (often timed with current events, like the “labor of love” meme above, posted around Labor Day), but also which sometimes respond back to followers and fans, soliciting interaction and viral sharing. He has his own web site. As a character, however, 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. The Maytag Man IS the machine, and in near every commercial that features him, there is a cheesy bell tone (“laundry done!”) and a cut which replaces his image with an image of the product itself.
This is in line with the Fantastic, identifiable whenever the figurative is made real. The ads perpetuate the fantasy that appliances are more reliable than humans not because they put men out of jobs, but because they are super-human. They are the achieved fantasy that mechanical men with militant efficiency and dedication to their jobs are the superior man. This is the exact opposite of the former Maytag Mag — his alter-ego and double. The service laborer has been replaced by the mechanical servant. Notice that there is never a direct interaction between them and the family members (mostly stereotypical housewives) doing their chores — we only see their backs as they rinse dishes in the sink and silently “hand” the dish to the Maytag Man, who begins to scrub it. There is a lack of communication, a lack of human interaction, which suggests that this is how work gets done: mechanically, without human involvement. Master to servant.
So if the ads and their fantasies are so fascistic and inhuman, why are they so appealing and funny? It’s not just that the delivery of the actor is so effective. It’s that the ads use a sort of “magic” that is laced with elements of the Freudian uncanny.
Take, for instance, this introductory spot ad, where the Maytag Man appears as BOTH washer and dryer, “fist-bumping” his doppleganger. If Maytag can make one man-who-is-machine, then they can mechanically reproduce them ad infinitum. Digital magic allows the actor to appear on screen with his double. The comedic “metal on metal” sound effect of their fist bump not only reinforces their role as “machines” but also betrays the unreality of the situation: the magic is all mechanical wizardry. That the woman who enters the room with a basket of laundry does not jump from the loud sound helps to construct the “other world” of these washers and dryers — a fantasy world, hidden in plain sight. When that secret world is erased by her entrance, the men are replaced with the appliances they were associated with in our imaginations, but at the same time we hear “birds chirping” in the ambient sound — semes of the “natural” world. The ad closes like an in-your-grille “Built Ford Tough” closer, with pressed aluminum taking over the screen to run the tagline, ‘What’s Inside Matters’ — but obviously this is a play on not merely our soiled personal objects, but organic authenticity, and the romantic expression that “it doesn’t matter what’s on the surface, it’s what is inside you that matters.” But the truth is that if people WERE appliances, we would not stuff our dirty clothes inside of them…unless, perhaps, they didn’t “matter” to us at all. So — this secret magical world, these fantasy machine-men — and what they represent to us psychologically — must also be erased.
The fantasy, of course, is that an inorganic object has a life all its own. Through advertising, these appliances are like a child’s wish for a teddy bear that can talk back, or a sect’s fantasy that a religious totem could possess the spirits of the dead. This is commodity fetishism, dramatized, uncanny, but also unsettled about the dead man they still are haunted by: the service worker of the past.