Q&A: Vacuum mogul says design, public suffer in current climate

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Vacuum tycoon James Dyson, inventor of the carpet cleaner that has swept the U.S., recently did advertising battle with rival Hoover in the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureaus over which brand sucks more. In an interview with West Coast Editor Alice Z. Cuneo, reluctant salesman Mr. Dyson speaks his mind about what's wrong with advertising today.

What's at stake here?

If a better technology has a genuine claim, and if other advertisers start saying the same thing-and haven't got it, of course-it negates all our efforts and all the valuable energy we put into research and development. And, of course, it confuses or deceives the public. The role of NAD in the U.S. and the ASA in England is to try to make sure that doesn't happen. The issues are fairly clear. But there's always rather a gray area, a terrible gray area surrounding claims. My theory is that the advertising-standard authorities need to be quite rebuffed about that.

What do you mean by gray area?

Quite a good example in our field is the term "bagless vacuum cleaner." We never claim our vacuum is a bagless. What we're claiming is it has no loss of suction. ... The trouble is if you come out with a genuine innovation, others will muscle in on this and devalue the innovation by claiming they have it as well even if they don't have it properly. Or at all...

It's a problem. It's the difficulty with advertising. People will cease to develop technology if the marketing messages are copied so easily, let alone the technology being copied or aped or mimicked or partially copied or whatever. The marketing claims are, really, in a way, as important as the technology itself because it's the way you communicate with your public.

How long do you think this battle will rage against Hoover?

I don't know. I don't know it to be a battle. In a way it's a pity Hoover doesn't develop a new technology and follow a different path instead of trying to follow our path. It's up to Hoover.

How can advertising issues be remedied?

There needs to be a line in claiming an organic sandwich or bagless vacuum cleaner. I think we need to be careful that we don't mislead the consumer. I think that's the most important thing in the end. I think that's where the advertising-standards boards have to be quite strict.

So what's wrong with marketing?

Where it goes wrong is where marketing is used in a competitive sense to mislead or confuse the public. Clever marketing. Clever use of words. Aping somebody's words, trying to say the same thing in a different way and it not being true. That's where marketing goes astray, from my point of view. Obviously a lot of people rather like that. I don't think it's good for research, and R&D and design, and I don't think it's good for the public.

How important is design to sales?

I've always looked at design very holistically. And I think the look is very important, but not in a stylistic sense, but how [a product] looks reflects what it does and reflects what it is trying to do. What I think I rather disapprove of, in design terms, is designer styling, in a way, design used as a marketing tool. You take your old product and you style it in a contemporary styling, then suddenly it becomes a modern-world designed product. That kind of thing I very much disapprove of. But design that really represents a function, better to look at, better to hold, that sort of thing, that's good design, more an engineer's view of design.

What else have you designed?

I made military high-speed landing craft, a wheeled vehicle that went on water. And I did a wheelbarrow that had a big round spherical wheel for going over soft ground. And I designed an electric wheelchair as well. Then I got angry about the vacuum cleaner.

What's your next fix?

I think almost anything can be radically improved, be greener, use less water, less energy. Be faster. Be lighter. Be smaller. Be more effective. The problem is thinking of a way of doing it. That's why when you've done it, you don't want people to copy it, or copy what you're saying.

Are Americans ready for good design?

Americans are by far the most sophisticated design public in the world. More so than Japan, which might surprise you and certainly more so than over here [England].

What was it like acting in your own ads?

I wasn't doing any acting. That was genuine. Having vacuumed as a child, I remember this screaming noise and awful smell of stale dog hair and stale dust and realizing this thing wasn't picking up. I got frustrated. In a way, appearing in my own advertisement was something I never thought I'd do. I don't think I can be bear to be a salesman.

Do you still vacuum at home?

Yes. I was a metropolitan man before most people were.
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