Mr. Clean, your time has come.
For more than six decades you’ve been waiting patiently under our kitchen sinks, as sports figures and comic book heroes have hogged the heroic spotlight. You never complained — you just kept cleaning our kitchen floors and erasing scuff marks with your unique brand of rectangular magic. You did your job, and you were happy to do it.
But times are different now. Americans can’t coalesce around sports figures because the games are all cancelled. We can’t go watch superheroes because the theaters are all closed. It’s the year 2020, and we’re all stuck inside, afraid of our neighbors and what germs they might be carrying.
In short, the stage has never been more perfectly set for a manscaping, chiseled-bodied, possibly gay, cleanliness-obsessed icon to heed his nation’s call. Mr. Clean, we need you now like never before.
Like so many great heroes, Mr. Clean was born of humble origins — he was created in the 1950s by a man named Linwood Burton, a businessman who ran a boat-cleaning company. Burton was looking for a cleaner that was strong enough to clean up boat grime, but safe for his employees to use, so he used his knowledge of chemistry to develop a formula that proved successful. And in 1957, he sold that formula to Procter & Gamble.
While Burton was the one to name the product “Mr. Clean,” the image of the mascot was developed by Harry Barnhart and Ernie Allen of the Tatham-Laird & Kudner ad agency in Chicago, then first rendered by commercial artist Richard Black. Stories abound about where the original look came from: Some say it was influenced by Yul Brynner’s character in The King and I, while others say he was based on a Navy sailor from Pensacola, Florida. Black’s obituary in the New York Times, though, may give the clearest idea: “[Procter & Gamble] had the idea that the product cleaned ‘like magic,’ said Tricia Higgins, the communications manager for the brand. ‘Of course magic from a bottle has to be represented by a genie,’ she added. The company envisioned a bald man with a nose ring. Mr. Black submitted two depictions of a smiling, strapping genie, one with a nose ring and one with an earring. Procter & Gamble chose the second one.”
The product was an immediate success, becoming one of the top cleaning products within six months of its debut, and a large part of that was owed to its iconic, forward-thinking mascot — a tough, muscular man cleaning homes at a time when that was still very much “women’s work.” He was also unafraid to be in touch with his feminine side, as one of his earliest ads depicted him in an apron (one of the very few times he wore more than his signature white T-shirt).
In addition to the print ads appearing in 1958, Mr. Clean also debuted with television commercials. They featured an animated Mr. Clean and a jingle so memorable, songwriter Thomas Scott Cadden was still getting royalty checks from the ditty up until his death in 2007. Even after his death, the song would occasionally be revived for nostalgic ad campaigns:
Mr. Clean gets rid of dirt and grime and grease in just a minute;
Mr. Clean will clean your whole house and everything that’s in it!
While the Mr. Clean in the original drawings is nearly identical to the Mr. Clean you see on the bottle today, he hasn’t been totally without change: For a short time, Procter & Gamble made him “mean” for a campaign when he was mad about dirt. He also gained a first name in 1962, as part of a campaign where the public was encouraged to suggest one (eventually, the name “Veritably” was chosen, making his full name “Veritably Clean”). He was portrayed, too, in live action for a time, played by actor House Peters Jr., in ads that are only really notable for how creepy they were (and the fact that Mr. Clean actually talks).
All these little changes took place in the first decade of Mr. Clean’s debut — the 1960s, a time for experimentation. But by the 1970s, Mr. Clean was right back to where he started, a bald, smirking cartoon character in a plain white T-shirt, happy to lend a hand in the fight against grime. Over the next five decades, different ad slogans and songs would come and go, but Mr. Clean always kept his signature look on the bottle as well as in the commercials, either as a hand-drawn or a surprisingly sexual computer-generated cartoon character.
In 1985, Mr. Clean received perhaps his highest honor, when the UCLA Film and Television Archive added all of his commercials to its permanent collection. Eighteen years later, Mr. Clean gained a boost with a product that’s since become a household staple — the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. Not long after, he became the subject of minor controversy when the British Parliament accused the mascot of “sexual stereotyping” in 2008, claiming that his “muscular physique might imply that only a strong man is powerful enough to tackle dirt,” though the idea was mostly laughed off and was quickly forgotten about. The next year, Procter & Gamble began franchising the name for a chain of carwashes.
In 2013, Procter & Gamble filled in some of the mythos around Mr. Clean by giving him a more detailed origin story, explaining that he was found by farmers (much like Superman), then traveled the globe to learn all he could about “fighting grime” (much like Batman). The ad wasn’t well-received, with many finding the CGI Mr. Clean creepy, although I believe that they may simply have revealed too much about Mr. Clean, removing the mystery that’s clearly a key part of the character’s appeal.
But what is it about Mr. Clean that’s kept the character so cemented in the public consciousness?
Really, it all comes down to that classic design. Animation historian Dave Bossert once explained to me that cartoon characters generally thrive on simplicity, and that their design is all about communicating what the public needs to know about a character — e.g., Sonic the Hedgehog is fast, so he has sneakers. Mr. Clean’s image is all about cleanliness, which is why his shirt is bright white, a symbol for spotlessly clean. As for the bald head and earring, while Mr. Clean himself has denied that he’s a genie on his official Twitter account, there’s always been an intentional genie-like quality to him, going all the way back to Black’s original drawings, so his shiny dome and sparkling earring symbolize his magical, genie-like cleaning ability.
This look not only made him easily identifiable, it also led to widespread speculation about his sexuality, and over the years, Mr. Clean has become something of a gay icon thanks to the design’s queer coding. “Part of the reason for queer coding is because there’s a lack of queer representation out there,” says my colleague Joseph Longo. “Also, it’s just a bit of fun to look at this capitalist image and call it gay. It’s kind of a game.” It’s a game that Longo has clearly become something of a pro at — I humbly submit his excellent essays on gay capitalist Mr. Peanut and the lesbian M&M’s couple — so when I first asked Longo about Mr. Clean, his response was one of joy: “Always up to talk about how much of a daddy Mr. Clean is.”
Naturally, Mr. Clean has never been confirmed as gay by Procter & Gamble, who’ve always skirted the question. If you Google “Is Mr. Clean gay?” the “official” answer that comes up is a Quora response that reads, “Mr. Clean is neither gay, straight nor bi, he is asexual because sex of any kind is just too dirty for him.” Which is probably just fine with Procter & Gamble as well — as Longo explains, big companies “never want to put their character in a gay box. Which I understand, but it’s a bit homophobic, since avoiding the question doesn’t really jive with how the characters are represented.”
In all likelihood, Mr. Clean wasn’t originally developed with any kind of sexuality in mind, or if he was, he most likely was meant to appeal to women, as they would have been the ones primarily using the product when it was first introduced. In other words, in 1958, Mr. Clean’s image didn’t say “gay” — it said he was tough, clean and magical — but over the decades, styles changed and “the gay man caught up with Mr. Clean and he was kind of grandfathered in,” explains David Thorpe, director of the documentary Do I Sound Gay?.
“Mr. Clean’s got the bald head and the strong eyebrows; he’s buff, well-groomed, has a pierced ear, loves to clean and wears tight clothing, so he checks a lot of boxes,” Longo says. (And while Mr. Clean’s left ear is pierced, the history of which ear is the “gay ear” is so convoluted and stupid that it really doesn’t matter which side it’s on.) Additionally, Thorpe explains that the white T-shirt was a common gay look in the 1970s and early 1980s. Mr. Clean has also been a lifelong “confirmed bachelor” as well, which has also helped to fuel these rumors.
Of course, so much of what makes Mr. Clean the subject of gay coding is reliant upon stereotypes, but Thorpe insists that that’s all part of the fun: “Overall, queer coding does rely a lot on stereotypes, but most reasonable adults would agree there’s a grain of truth to stereotypes. The problem is that they’re not always true, but Mr. Clean’s status as a gay icon is very tongue-in-cheek, so no one is taking it seriously anyway.”
As for when Mr. Clean made the switch from polished genie dude to hunky gay guy, Procter & Gamble themselves put the date on that around the late 1980s or early 1990s. Back in 2000, Salon asked Procter & Gamble if Mr. Clean was gay, to which they responded, “We’ve been receiving questions like that for at least the past 10 years. We’re not sure where it started — it could have to do with his earring or his attire — but we like to think Mr. Clean was just a man before his time.”
A man ahead of his time is pretty much the perfect way to describe Mr. Clean. The product of 1950s advertising, his unchanging image has been gaining the trust of Americans for 63 years, and with our renewed focus on cleanliness, Mr. Clean has never been more suited to meet the challenges of our time. As Procter & Gamble communications manager Mandy Ciccarella puts it, “We understand that in these unprecedented times, there is a renewed focus on home cleanliness and organization, as most of us are spending more time in our homes than ever before. We appreciate that one of the places consumers are turning is to Mr. Clean, who has been a symbol of a tough and reliable clean in American households for decades.”
Indeed, during these times, Americans are compiling an arsenal of cleaning products to protect their families, yet none quite have a face like Mr. Clean. Sure, the Snuggle bear is cute, but he hardly makes one feel safe from harm — same goes those Muppet-looking Scrubbing Bubbles. Even the Brawny guy has lost his face in recent years. Only Mr. Clean, that strong, silent, hygiene-obsessed, almost certainly gay dude is prepared for the challenges we now face. Or, to paraphrase that creepy CGI origin ad from 2013, Mr. Clean didn’t travel the globe and learn to fight grime for himself: “He was doing it to help others. No matter who they were, where they lived or how big the mess was.”
Thank you, Mr. Clean — your leadership during these dark times is exactly what America needs.