Rob Walker | Essays

The Filth Epiphany (Dyson Vacuums)

The Dyson vacuum cleaner, a hit product in England and elsewhere in Europe, was introduced to the American market in 2002 by way of a commercial featuring its inventor. James Dyson, a gentlemanly gray-haired sort, looked at the camera and blandly explained how he'd been disappointed in the vacuum he owned and decided to invent a new one. “A few thousand prototypes later, I had it,” he said with a distinct air of anticlimax. There was something a little hokey about the whole presentation, but in fact Dyson vacuums have gained a somewhat fanatical following, and the company has sold more than 12 million units worldwide — despite the fact that its product costs $400 and up (compared with $100 to $150 for other popular upright models).

The official Dyson pitch centers on the inventor's maverick story and something called “Root8 Cyclone technology,” but the more basic appeal could be described as the Filth Epiphany. Browse through the 50-plus reviews of Dyson's DC07 model on Epinions.com — a Web site where people evaluate all manner of consumer goods — and you'll notice a couple of recurring themes. One is the over-the-top enthusiasm of many Dyson reviews, most of which give the machine the highest, five-star rating. Another is how the Dyson made users feel about the carpets they had found perfectly clean before: “gross,” “sickened,” “horrified.”

The key here is that the Dyson does not hide whatever dirt, hair and other crud it extracts from your floors or carpets in an opaque bag; instead it collects the stuff in a transparent, removable chamber. One Epinions writer describes having friends over a few days after buying a Dyson. “They noticed the new vacuum, and we started talking about it,” the reviewer relates. “They wanted a demo,” and after warning his guests not to expect too much, since he'd done a thorough Dysoning a few days earlier, he obliged. “I couldn't believe how much dust and dirt came up!” he writes. “There was so much junk in the collection bin, I was actually a bit embarrassed.” Maybe the real question here is how a friendly social gathering ends up devolving into a cleaning-appliance demo. But a Dyson spokeswoman says this is not uncommon. Indeed, the ritual may be critical to Dyson's success since the company says that upward of 60 percent of buyers have had the machine recommended to them by someone they know. 

The story of the vacuum's genesis goes like this: Dyson, an inventor since his college days, became annoyed with the weakening ''suction power'' of most vacuums. He felt the problem lay in the bag and developed a bag-free machine that he peddled to all the big vacuum players. None were interested, perhaps because selling bags is a fairly big business. Since the Dyson took off in Europe, however, many have rolled out bagless machines of their own.

The machine — a serious-looking contraption despite the canary-yellow coloring of its best-known model — is now an industrial-design star, in the permanent collection of several museums. A sequel, called the DC11 Telescope, is less bulky than the original but lists at $500. It uses Root12 Cyclone technology, but really, you can talk all day about “centrifugal force” and “microscopic particles”; show someone a gunk-filled container and you've got their attention. This is why the Filth Epiphany seems much more effective than simply showing someone a strikingly clean carpet. In fact, the cleaner the carpet looks before vacuuming, the more effective the demonstration of the previously invisible grime. Imagine the mites, the lurking potential health hazards. See, your tidy-looking floors are an elaborate and dangerous lie! That vivid display of purged ugliness is an essay on paranoia, and on the belief in the power of technology to conquer threats we've never seen but always suspected were out there. 

Interestingly, Dyson's early focus groups suggested that the transparent waste bin was a bad idea, that no one wanted to look at a bucket of dirt. But the inventor disagreed. “Even though the visuals were not so easy on the eye,” the spokesperson explains, “James felt that it would give people a certain sense of satisfaction after they had vacuumed.” Yes. And, no doubt, a nagging sense that this feeling is fleeting, so they'd better vacuum again soon, just to be safe. 

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, August 08, 2004. 


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