The more wildly inaccurate the implication, the more ingenuous the television commercial. This morning, I saw one American classic product, Clorox brand bleach, sell itself by exploiting an American classic persona, Martha Washington.
Instead of the frowning, downtrodden housewives of the latter Twentieth Century, this ad depicts a chipper and attentive young American woman, with no indication she was doing the dirty work for an insensitive husband or bratty kids.
She had a bit of dough and some smarts, and apparently time on her hands, because, inexplicably, she was wearing a Revolutionary Era- type formal dress and white mob-cap. Not the Halloween costume type but a shining, expensive-looking type of ballgown This being 2011, maybe she had a Ph.D. in history but couldn’t find a job. Or maybe she had married well and divorced better.
The voice-over announces that she so trusted Clorox that she was completely comfortable wearing “Martha Washington’s Inaugural gown,” a valuable historica item, while bleaching her wash of 21st century clothes. An orange bow on the dress suggested the real “salmon” colored dress that the real First Lady once wore. It’s now owned and displayed by the Smithsonian Institution, and has been seen in museums around the country in recent years as part of a touring exhibit. Using the persona of Martha Washington is as old as American mass consumerism. Shoes, candy, table linens, allspice, apples – the list of products evoking her in ads to suggest the items had the same wholesome reliability and accountability as Martha herself goes back to the 1870s.
For those unclear on this, Martha was married to George Washington, the first President and American Revolutionary War general. Her practicality and sacrifice during those years were all in the line of patriotic duty, and her personal reputation was always held high as a model of motherly goodness. Good rep for a purity product.
As usual, the ad folks didn’t quite get it right. Even if she did wear that dress while she was First Lady, Martha Washington missed the inauguration. She was still at home in Virginia, on her plantation Mount Vernon, when George Washington was sworn-in as the first President in New York City (then the capital city) on April 30 1789. Even if Martha had been there, and even if she had the salmon-colored dress ready to wear, she could never have worn it to the Inaugural Ball.There was none for that George W.
Credit Clorox. It resisted going the way of those mid-20th century ads like the wildly inaccurate one of Jefferson’s daughter baking gingerbread in the Monticello kitchens. It may have been the hard-living late 18th century, but these women were still among the wealthy class. They may have had recipe books and intentions for what crops to cultivate, but they instructed other people to handle food and soil. And soiled clothes. It was never Martha Washington but her African-American women slaves who toiled in the “Wash House” at Mount Vernon, a hot and small workplace where a steady stream of table and bed linens, and the lighter clothes of George, Martha and their endless number of house guests, were soaked with lye and dried in the sun. In those days of yore, the bleaching was more to give the visual impression of whiter whites with a touch of blueing, a natural product made from plants like indigo, which came in liquid or compacted powder.
Not until 1912 did California Electro-Alkaline Co. begin churning out barrels of sodium hydrochloride bleach to sell to large hotels, hospitals, water companies as a disinfectant, not so much as a whitener.
A decade later, in 1922, the company repackaged itself as Clorox Chemical Company and, seeking to expand into the home market, initially gave away pints of its bleach for free before selling it in glass jars and then plastic white tubs we know and love and wash with today.
Closely associated with Martha Washington’s visual persona, however, is her white hair.
Contrary to no known false rumor, she did not use Clorox to keep it fluffy fresh. No bleaching white. Is this a missed advertising agency opportunity?
Hear the ad pitch:
“Now what if…Martha had kept her color? Maybe we make it the real reason George Washington crossed the Delaware quicker, to get to his newly bruntette wife? ”
Clorox’s loss may be Clairol’s gain.