How did Mr. Clean come into our lives? Well, according to Procter & Gamble's website, it was when, one day long ago, a farmer ambled out his front door to check on his crops, then looked down to see "a small but sturdy baby with a bald but shiny head." The farmer and wife adopted the foundling, and "as Mr. Clean grew," we are told, "so did his love of cleaning."
Right. So anyway, what actually happened was this: In 1957, P&G hired Chicago ad shop Tatham-Laird to come up with a brand identity for a new household cleaner called Mr. Clean. P&G said the detergent-based solution cleaned like magic, and the concept of magic inside a bottle led to the idea for a genie.
Enter commercial artist Richard Black, who drew a bald, burly man with a gold earring. (An early idea to render him with a nose ring got scrapped.) But instead of dressing Mr. Clean in a turban and flowing robes, Black left his character bareheaded—and put him in a tight white T-shirt. Accompanied by his own jingle, Mr. Clean debuted on TV in 1958. Within six months, the product became the No. 1 household cleaner in the United States.
Conventional wisdom holds that you don't fix something that isn't broke—and P&G hasn't. For close to six decades now, the character has resonated with consumers. "Mr. Clean is an idealized and standardized character," observed James Heaton, president, creative director of brand strategy firm Tronvig Group. "He fits the archetype of the strong man."
Little wonder, then, that consumers made the hoped-for link between the tough guy and the tough cleanser. "Mr. Clean's strength and well-groomed appearance fit what the product promises," said P&G communications manager Julia LaFeldt. "One glance at him and you know he represents cleaning power."
Not that it's been a clean sweep for Mr. Clean. Despite P&G's careful rendering of the mascot as "asexual and nonthreatening" according to a 1989 New York magazine piece, the character has riled some people. In 2008, the European Parliament blasted Mr. Clean for gender stereotyping. And even earlier than that, citizens of the Internet have demanded to know if Mr. Clean is gay. (As early as 2000, a Mr. Clean spokesperson admitted, "We've been receiving questions like that for at least the past 10 years.") Clearly, the symbolic significance of a ripped dude in a tight white T-shirt is different today than it was in 1957.
For the record, boys, Mr. Clean has no sexual orientation—he's not real. And maybe that explains his efficacy, too. "Mr. Clean is a kind of vessel into which people can invest their desire for a simpler, cleaner world," Heaton said, "one that does not really resemble the one we actually live in."
This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.