A Good Clean Fight

Have you noticed the airwaves filling up with men who take vacuuming seriously? This used to be the realm of stressed, overdressed housewives or happy, hopping maids; now it’s a serious science for specialists who approach it with ever increasing levels of entrepreneurship and technology.

The original obsessive, David Oreck, genial American master of his eponymous 41-year-old brand, now has some competition, in the form of pretty boy British designer James Dyson, who went with a major agency, Fallon. Wouldn’t it be great to put them in an Iron Chef-style death match? The Ultimate Clean-Off?

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Vacuumania! In this corner, fresh from England, with his hipster haircut, plummy accent and obsession with suction, the 57-year-old challenger, James “The Silver Cyclone” Dyson!

And now entering the ring, in signature suit and tie, smiling and brandishing his lightweight eight-pound XL, the champion, 81-year-old David “Lightning Legs” Oreck!

A natural ham in front of the camera, Oreck jabs and bounces and dances, the embodiment of the American dream. Dyson moves in, in jeans and a cool button-down shirt, punching new areas of bagless über-design, new color combinations and cool plastics. Wait—he’s showing surveillance video of vacuuming fools hitting clogs!

Oreck surges with speed and power and plain-talking charm, bringing up service, service, service, guarantees, a free gift of a car-vac and money back. Dyson retreats to his corner to consult with his engineers.

Oreck is covered in bags and filters and belts. He’s donning a cape and fooling around with a toupee! Dyson’s flaunting his sophisticated yellow cones and saying things should work properly! It looks like Oreck has brought out the stiffer bristles. Wait, wait! Now he’s racing around with his exclusive nozzle! And Dyson’s not giving an inch, wielding some sort of an aesthetically advanced canister!

OK, enough. It’s a fight to the finish, but let’s stop by shouting “Uncle!” or “Yo, Adrian!”

Even though they probably disdain each other and could not be more different, scratch the surface and you find similar polymath tendencies in each man. Both were successful in other lines of work before the “inciting incidents” (as Robert McKee famously put it) that would summon them to greatness: Build a better vacuum, and stake everything you have on it. That hardly seems like a sexy life pursuit, but for both, it was.

Dyson attended the Royal College of Art and became an industrial designer, along the way inventing such oddball devices as the Waterolla and the Ballbarrow. I like the directness of his commercials—it’s just the man and his yellow canister. I was a bit taken aback at first by his dogged focus on “suction.” So impassioned is he that it even brings out the sibilance in his speech. He also seems to have quite an obsession with dirt (and rarely has the word “duht” sounded so glorious).

My favorite ad is the first one, in a home setting, where he explains his manifesto (“And 14 years and 5,000 prototypes later …”). The next two add a few new elements: One opens on a lineup of sad-sack-looking, shelved vacuums, and Dyson explains the superiority of his cyclone technology, which creates “100,000 times the force of gravity to spin the dirt out of the air.” The other begins with some black-and-white surveillance video of unfortunate vacuumers reacting to clogs. It’s so deadly serious-looking that it would seem to be a setup for satire. But it turns out Dyson is watching it all in a lab setting; the spot also includes a sonogram-like screen that shows the physics of the dirt spinning—it’s as if he is indeed proudly showing off his baby.

The best part of the second spot is the end, when Dyson signs his name to a black screen, as if it’s a canvas, and then says, “I just think things should work properly.” Dyson has a serious but boyish, Anderson Cooper-ish look, and a Steve Jobs-like, too-busy-to-really-worry-about-it approach to his wardrobe. And indeed, the pitch, all about a superior product with sophisticated design, is very Apple-like.

If Dyson is (a smaller, privately owned) Apple, then Oreck is (a smaller, privately owned) Dell. He was an army pilot (he still flies and rides Harleys) and a star salesman for RCA before he bought a dying vacuum factory and came up with his lightweight model. The company concentrates on infomercials and direct mail but does some broadcast and cable TV spots (in-house) that have a brightly lit, super-salesman tone and an equal reliance on the 800 number. They’re obvious and corny, yes, but something about his honesty and sheer work ethic connects.

One recent 30-second spot is actually three 10-second bits put together: Oreck gamely goes from wearing a magician’s outfit (“Want to make your pet hair magically disappear?”) to getting a toupee blown on his head (“Clean every rug in your home”) to having an owl perch on the end of his Oreck XL broom (very Harry Potter). The part with the rug is a pure dignity-defying groaner, but Oreck is so affable that he manages to pull it off. He comes off as a nicer Frank Purdue or a thinner Dave Thomas—guys who were also monomaniacs about their respective businesses.

Those references, of course, also invite questions about the inevitable—succession. The guy’s opening an “Oreck Clean Home Center” in New York this week, and he’s in fighting shape. But he is 81. I’d suggest some sort of branding transition—a lightning surprise, perhaps, for the crowd and the competition. He can’t embody the brand forever, even if he, like Dyson, is living in a vacuum.