How to put a spin on your new washing machine

There's more to a gadget than its ability to do the job at hand, as a dispute between Dyson and 'Which?' reveals
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Oh, I'd love a Dyson," whined Barbara jealously in the Christmas Day edition of the TV sitcom The Royle Family. She meant the ubiquitous vacuum cleaner of course, and the context revealed a great deal about the position that banal household appliances have come to occupy in British culture.

Oh, I'd love a Dyson," whined Barbara jealously in the Christmas Day edition of the TV sitcom The Royle Family. She meant the ubiquitous vacuum cleaner of course, and the context revealed a great deal about the position that banal household appliances have come to occupy in British culture.

You see Barbara was vying with Valerie, the nouveau riche mother of her son's girlfriend, for supremacy in the social scale. She didn't stand a chance. First Valerie made clear her superior status by announcing that she had breast implants, and then followed up swiftly to secure her triumph with news of the vacuum cleaner her husband bought for her birthday. Did anyone care how well the actual thing cleaned? Forget it. If you've got a Dyson, you're really somebody, as the thousands of people who buy one of the instantly recognisable yellow and grey machines each month can testify.

Success like this naturally had James Dyson, multi-millionaire and celebrity inventor of the Dual Cyclone cleaner, rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of sales figures for his latest product, the newly launched Contrarotator washing machine. It has the brand, the looks, and a claim over other machines to give "the cleanest wash results in the fastest time", thanks to its unique action of turning two drums in opposite directions.

Nothing, it seemed, could stand in the way of the product shooting to the top of the sales league - until Which?, the magazine of the Consumers' Association, came out last Monday with a report which threatened to stick a spanner into the smoothly running Dyson works.

In its tests, pitting the new washing machine against a previously declared top choice, Which? reported that although the Contrarotator washed 2kg of clothes quicker and to the same standard as a Bosch Maxx WFL, its £1,200 price tag compared unfavourably with £480 for the competing model, and that, therefore, the Bosch machine remained the best buy for all-round value.

This seems fair enough. But Dyson, miffed by what his company sees as misleading information, has now issued a statement disputing the Which? findings for washing larger loads, which is a key selling point of the Contrarotator. Quoting tests carried out to International Electrochemical Committee (IEC) standards, Dyson said the machine washed its maximum load of 7kg quicker and four grades cleaner than the Bosch managed to finish its 6kg. This, says Dyson, "allows you to wash the average weekly wash in just two loads, taking two hours 14 minutes, compared with five hours 45 minutes in a conventional Bosch Maxx".

International committees, kilograms, statistics - we are still talking about washing machines and not weaponry here, aren't we? Well, yes, but you can see how seriously manufacturers - bless them - take these things. How about us, the consumers?

Of course, we all like to think we do our research when it comes to spending money on household appliances, but we can't help being swayed in our purchasing decisions by other factors - does it look good, make me cool, appear in this month's issue of Wallpaper* magazine?

Crucial things like that - which Which?, let alone the IEC, just doesn't have a way of assessing - are just as likely to affect the sales of the Contrarotator as the test information published by Which?, as marketing consultant and cultural commentator Peter York explains: "Looks are important. There will be people who will buy the Dyson washing machine because it is distinctive. The vacuum cleaner is successful because it had a new principle and a new look. With its see-through bits, it is the Apple Macintosh of vacuum cleaners."

In this part of the battle strategy for supremacy, the issues are not about technology or who washes cleaner (a term which sounds dated in itself), but about those late 20th-century buzz words: image, brand and marketing - the things which now make or break everything from art to political parties.

In these crucial areas Dyson has become a master, his masquerading behind an apparent distaste for such vulgar selling tools being a supreme example of his skill. The company proudly issues another statistic: that only one per cent of its profit is invested in advertising, while 17 per cent goes into research and development.

Instead of using archaic advertising techniques like posters and magazine pages, Dyson has created a positive image around his products by far more subtle means. There is his own story, the now mythologised rags-to-riches tale of the eccentric British inventor who made good in the end (read it in his autobiography Against the Odds); the stickers on his vacuum cleaners proudly telling us that they are now in the collection of the world's greatest museums; the award-winning hi-tech architecture of the Dyson factory in Wiltshire (to which journalists were ferried by helicopter for the launch of the Contrarotator); the worthy causes to which some Dyson funds are donated; and - an important one this - a use of language to describe the products which links them to a long lineage of iconic modernist items stretching back to the Bauhaus (the maxim on the home page of the Dyson web site declares in almost religious terms, "let the design evolve from the function"). All these things confer status on Dyson products in a way that makes a Which? report seem hopelessly old-fashioned.

" Which? is very much part of the post-war advice culture," says Jane Pavitt, co-curator of Brand.New, an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum which traces the history of branding. "It takes the line of a rational consumer who applies a male logic to products. It's the kind of thing my parents would have looked at in the 1970s."

Today, claims Pavitt, people's decisions are more likely to be informed by the lifestyle magazines they read and the stores they shop in, as well, of course, as the image a brand presents. "Dyson's personality is important," she says. "People trust him for his message. He has brand loyalty. And of course, the British love an inventor. Design is still considered to be something that foreigners do."

This leads us on to looks, and it is the look of Dyson products which completes the whole best-selling package. By making the vital dust-containing section of the Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner out of clear plastic (and this was in 1993, remember, years before Apple iMacs), Dyson exposed the most crucial selling point of his machine - no bag.

Now the Contrarotator also has lots of clear bits. Never mind that washing machines have had see-through doors for generations and that you won't be able to see the revolutionary drums turning for the washing cycle; it's the idea of visible innovation that matters, as Peter York explains: "Innovation introduces magic. And I want a magic washing machine."

At Dyson, of course, they're sticking to their story that it's the performance of the washing machine that really matters. "We don't design something to be a cult object," says their spokesperson. They may not, but they sure as hell must hope the Contrarotator will become one all the same.