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Adventures In Consumer Products

May 13, 2010

The other day we bought a new vacuum cleaner for the farmhouse.  It was been a great learning experience. 

First, much to my amazement, there is a shop here that does nothing but sell vacuum cleaners.  They are specialists.  We chose to go there rather than one of those home appliance places because I’ve always been sceptical that the kid who has just sold someone an iPod and someone else a flat screen TV will be able to answer all of my questions about vacuum cleaners.  Not that he won’t try.

We were greeted by a salesman who exuded knowledge of vacuum cleaners.  He even had a uniform that made him look like a cleaner.  After half an hour of Vacuum Cleaner 101, we knew everything we ever wanted to know. We settled on a named brand plus got fifty bucks off the list price and an extra pack of bags!

We went away happy.

So I took this thing home and unpacked it.  I hadn’t noticed it in the store, but I was struck by the model name of the machine.  It is called the Tranquility. Who thinks these things up?

I had a brief pang of buyer’s remorse.  I don’t know about you, but to me a vacuum cleaner should be called something like Hurricane or Cyclone or Death Vortex.  Tranquility doesn’t quite sound up to the job.  It sounds, well, wimpy.  Like, “Excuse me, dirt, do you mind if I gently suck you up?”


I started to think that the manufacturer might not have a total appreciation for the expectations of the consumer.

Then I decided to read the user manual.  You are probably saying to yourself, What kind of dork reads the user manual for a vacuum cleaner?  Fair enough.  But I did it out of curiosity rather than a need for enlightenment.

But guess what?  It was enlightening.  The manual is seven pages in length.  Four pages are just pictures.  One page is devoted to the “Guarantee.”  It is basically incomprehensible but is a shining example of the dictum “The Large Print Giveth And the Small Print Taketh Away.”

That leaves just two pages for “How To” verbiage.  But you won’t find anything that tells you how the thing works in those two pages.  One third of one page is taken up with one of those “Troubleshooting Guide” tables.  As I mentioned, I found myself wondering what the manufacturer was thinking when they named the machine “Tranquility.”  But I was positively intrigued at their perception of the skill level of their customers based on the content of the troubleshooting guide:





Motor does not start. No power Check plug
Suction inadequate Dust bag full Replace dust bag


The remaining one and one third pages are given over to safety warnings.  The most frequently repeated words are “Do” and “Not.”  In juxtaposition. 

I’ve always thought that the stuff that they warn you about in these manuals are things that real people have done.  Legally that means that the manufacturer has reason to believe that there is a risk and would be remiss if the consumer weren’t warned.  That’s why when you buy a gas powered lawn mower it says “Do not use to trim bushes.”  Or why we are warned not to use electric hair dryers in the shower.

These are some of the vacuum cleaner warnings:  “DO NOT pick up flammable liquids such as petrol, etc.”  Or “DO NOT pick up hot ashes or charcoal,” and my favorite:  “DO NOT use on people or animals.”

And how about “Turn off when not in use.”  That is important enough to be repeated three times.

I now have a profile of the average vacuum cleaner user (at least in the eyes of the people who make vacuum cleaners).  They can’t figure out how to turn them on, if they manage that, they vacuum up hot coals and then forget to turn the machine off. 

That, I think, is why they feel they can get away with saying something like this, which appears right below the troubleshooting guide:

Due to our program of continuous product improvement and innovation, sometimes the product you buy may differ slightly from the one shown on the product carton.

I guess we are supposed to believe that they are improving so continuously and so rapidly that they haven’t had time to print new boxes.  But what I think it really means is “In order to squeeze every last cent out of our manufacturing process, we can’t be bothered to make sure we put the machine you buy into the right box.”

And this appears on the last page:

Our policy is one of continuous development and accordingly we reserve the right to change specifications without prior knowledge.

I’m not sure what a “policy of continuous development” is, but it must have a life of its own if product specifications are changing without anyone knowing about it!

Reading the Tranquility manual got me thinking about my days as an agent of global capitalism.  I imagined the effort that would have gone into creating the manual.  It would have been an interdisciplinary process with endless meetings and focus groups and drafts.   If the company that makes vacuum cleaners is anything like the place I worked, producing the manual would have been more time consuming than making the machine.

I remember one time we were trying to get out a memo to the staff telling them that the office would be closed the day after Thanksgiving.  It went through a series of iterations before we launched it toward the Human Resources and Legal department event horizons for their “input.”  Sometime after Christmas it came back from some dank corner of HR with the notation “Superceded by the passage of time.”

So I imagine that hours would have been spent on the vacuum cleaner book debating whether it should be called an “Instruction Manual” or “Instruction Book.”  Executives would ponder the issue and demand to know: “What is the competition doing?”  “What does legal say?” 

Marketing consultants, brand image consultants, lawyers, engineers all would have had input to make sure that the book was responsive to the customer and portrayed the image the company wanted to create.

And the scary thought is that all that talent decided that it did!

I’m going to go plug it in.  Wish me luck!

PS—You will note that I made it through this entire post without a single pun on the word suck!

39 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2010 11:16 pm

    Thomas, you are a cack (my highest praise, don’t you know?). So when you were an “agent of global capitalism” that’ll be when you were obliged to “socialise” the user manual, n’est-ce pas? Could anyone else make tranquility sound so deadly? SG xx

  2. May 14, 2010 2:54 am

    I dread manuals – a must, however. You captured everything wrong with manuals and reenforced my dread.


  3. May 14, 2010 3:22 am

    What a great blog, thanks for sharing! 😉

  4. May 14, 2010 3:28 am

    Breland Kent, do you just copy and paste that same comment into every bodies blog? Stop spamming.

    That story reminds me of a package of candles we bought from IKEA. On the warning label they had several pictures of what you shouldn’t do while lighting the candles. One of which was sit in a rocking chair. It was bizarre, and for some reason had us in stitches for a good half an hour.

  5. May 14, 2010 4:38 am

    Oh, those manuals don’t know anything. After a good weekend BBQ I just bring out my tranquility and it makes cleaning my grill such a breeze!

  6. May 14, 2010 5:21 am

    I am going to go home and read every manual I have. I envision great things from the KitchenAid mixer.

    Funny stuff!

  7. May 14, 2010 5:56 am

    Great post. I couldn’t stop laughing!!! Love your play with words…. and YES I agree about the name of this one, although I think I would have thought that maybe Tranquility meant a quieter vacuum? Or the feeling you get after everything is clean? Just thoughts!

    • May 14, 2010 9:33 am

      Yeah, it is probably supposed to be related to care free home care, but that sounds like an oxymoron to me!

  8. May 14, 2010 5:57 am

    Reminds me of the instructions that came with a new blow dryer –

    Do not use while sleeping.

    I don’t seem to have many friends who blow dry their hair in their sleep – thank goodness!

  9. May 14, 2010 5:59 am

    This was useful for me. I will stop vacuuming people and animals around here.

    If these Tranquility people are media-savvy, they’ve got a Google Alert for themselves and are now petrified.

    Unfairly, because this malaise is society-wide.

    How about a simple product WITHOUT a manual because none is needed?

    Apple comes close. Sometimes.

  10. May 14, 2010 6:02 am

    Sorry, I take all that back. Returning from the farmer’s market the other day with fantastic berries of all sorts, I was forced into Troubleshooting as my children rubbed the berries into each other’s hair. This is America and I am mad, friggin’ mad, and I will sue somebody unless I get immediate proof that the berry grower has produced a Troubleshooting manual. An online version would do. Otherwise, all bets are off.

    • May 14, 2010 9:34 am

      Now you know why vacuum manufacturers have to say not to vacuum people–it’s the best way to get berries out of hair.

  11. scarsarestories permalink
    May 14, 2010 6:13 am

    ROFLMAO – oh, the joys of manuals! …and warning tags. The most recent two iPods in my household have arrived with stickers on the packaging that say “DO NOT MICROWAVE”. Did someone microwave their iPod and file a lawsuit against Apple??
    I can’t recall ever actually successfully troubleshooting any electronic device using a manual – thank god for the internet, as you can usually find a forum about someone having the same problem as you, full of people trading ideas about how it can be fixed.
    As far as vacuums go, I bought my first ever (previously always having hardwood floors and no need for one) a few months ago – unfortunately, the bags for it are not sold in Canada, where I live, and where I bought the vacuum! 😆 I have to order them off of Amazon.
    When will the nonsense end? I, for one, am not holding my breath!

    • May 14, 2010 9:35 am

      Someone probably took a shower or went swimming with their iPod and then, shocked that it wouldn’t work, thought they could fix it by drying it out in the microwave.

  12. May 14, 2010 7:35 am

    Funny. Great Post. There are so funny things that they include in manuals and as warnings.

    I remember this one…
    Portable stroller Caution: Remove infant before folding for storage.

  13. alanfriday55 permalink
    May 14, 2010 10:28 am

    What a perception :0) Instruction manuals usually get relegated to a drawer and neverer seen again.
    I shall be digging a few of them out for a good laugh now!

  14. May 14, 2010 12:18 pm

    Purely my own coinage and very much a wee jocule given the dictionary definitions (Oz or Boston I should imagine). It’s from the verb, “to cackle” meaning to laugh like a witch, meaning to laugh without any consideration for propriety 🙂

    • May 14, 2010 12:28 pm

      Whew, thanks for clearing that up! And I’m glad to provide a cack now and then.

  15. May 14, 2010 12:37 pm

    As far as product names go, old SNL had it right- every product should end in “o-matic.”

  16. May 14, 2010 1:41 pm

    Yes, among others, though that’s the most famous.

  17. May 14, 2010 3:53 pm

    Love your blog post. I was hoping for some comments on the stupidity of all the new vacuum technology. Bagless vs. Bag. Now maybe my home is dirtier than most or I don’t vacuum as often as others but the new bagless vacuum I bought three years ago constantly gets its microfilters plugged up and then the vacuum stops sucking up stuff. Give me my old vacuum with bags to replace.

    I loved that fact that you bought one that requires bags. I’m ready to go back to the old technology. Never had trouble with it. Just gave my old one to one of my kids and bought the new kind. Big mistake!!!

    • May 14, 2010 4:03 pm

      I thought about putting in a couple of paragraphs about Vacuum Cleaners 101, which was a rundown of the ridiculously large variety of products that all do basically the same thing. Our ‘expert’ did warn us to keep away from bagless technology!

  18. May 14, 2010 4:08 pm

    How does the vacuum work?

  19. May 14, 2010 9:03 pm

    Well done with the ‘no puns on suck’, triumph of self control there. Regarding the hot coals thing … I’ve actually done that (*embarrassed*). Filled the entire apartment with smoke, melted the vacuum cleaner, had to jump up and down on the dust bag to stop it smouldering.

    • May 14, 2010 9:11 pm


      So now we know that YOU”RE the one who did it!

      Sorry to laugh, but the mental picture of someone stomping on the dust bag is too good. That must have helped the atmosphere in the apartment as well.

  20. May 15, 2010 6:18 pm

    LOL LOL LOL & ROMFL !!!Thomas what a great start to my very early day!!! I am still laughing. I will never look at vacuum cleaners (or hoovers as we call them in the UK) with the same eyes again. Tranquility??? someone needs a life!! Next time buy Dyson…they are sooooo much better! as for the manuals…dork! 😉 who reads those things anyway (besides some of the people who commented here) :), it is much more fun to just plug the blessed thing in a hope for the best. I never read manuals….probably explains why I have a dedicated space at the returns counter 🙂 This reminds me of my brother-in-law who worked at a Computer company’s help-desk in Ireland….the number of people who phoned in to say their ‘brand new’ computer is broken and not working was innumerable….1st help-desk question on the list = “Have you switched it on at the wall?” – errr!! No? Hahahaha. I am going to send him the link for this, it is excellent. Thanks for a fun post, I wish you much enjoyment as you tranquilly ‘Hoover’ thru life!
    Cindy (notjustagranny)

  21. Songbird permalink
    May 15, 2010 11:28 pm

    7 pages of manual!!!??? All I can think of is the poor sap who had to write that thing…it’s health and safety and “please dont sue us if you are stupid enough not to turn off the vacuum when not in use” era gone mad….

  22. May 16, 2010 7:34 am

    There’s a little sticker on my fridge which reads Open door before removing comestibles. Underneath it says Made in New Zealand. It all makes sense now.

    • May 16, 2010 12:10 pm

      In NZ they call it tucker, not comestibles!

      • May 16, 2010 1:34 pm

        Tucker-bag, right. You mates don’t throw up your food. You chunder your tucker.

        I double-checked. It actually says comettibles on the sticker, most likely due to the fridgefacturer’s relative unfamiliarity with the term.

  23. Gail Robertson permalink
    May 19, 2010 9:02 pm

    Sorry Tom, this is late but i have been doing my own research re the FART subject. Seems the older veterans love the subject, not so their wives. My comments re your blog to them brought tears of laughter to many eyes. cheers gail.

  24. Yolanda permalink
    June 1, 2010 8:34 am

    Hi Tom, great to see you two last night, I had a good laugh with this one! Loved the dialogue between the vacuum cleaner and the dirt and I have decided I will need to start reading manuals 🙂

  25. Len Skuta permalink
    November 16, 2011 4:36 am

    Our vacuum cleaner is a “Simplicity” brand. Do you suppose they are related?
    Len Skuta

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