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A hand for Mr. Clean

The Magic Eraser is winning raves from consumers, who love its ability to remove almost any stain or scuff.

By JUDY STARK
Published July 24, 2004


photo
[Times photo illustration: Cherie Diez]
A Procter & Gamble spokesman says of the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser: “Everybody’s got a miracle story.” Fans of the foam sponge say it removes dirt and stains that other products can’t budge.

It's all the talk of the Internet chat rooms: "The ideal cleaning product," kminer enthuses on epinions.com. "I'm completely enthralled with it," donnie013 says on the same site. Ike waxes rhapsodic on his online journal, calling it "divine glory."

"This product is AMAZING!!!" Melissa L. in Knoxville, Tenn., writes at www.planetfeedback.com

It's the subject of girlfriend gossip and earnest recommendations: a cleaning product that gets rid of scuffs, stains, crayon, grease, soap scum, ink, marker, fingerprints.

Even the manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, is surprised at the response to the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. More than 10,000 satisfied customers called, wrote or e-mailed the company with testimonials.

"Pretty much unbelievable and a lot bigger than our expectations" is how brand manager Bob Gilbreath described the response in a telephone interview. "Everybody's got a miracle story."

The object of all this adulation is about the size and shape of a blackboard eraser, made of a squeezable white foam, that comes two to a package for about $2 at supermarkets, big-box stores and drugstores.

From kids rooms to the pits at NASCAR races, the Magic Eraser has become the cult cleaning product of the year, the new new thing that has impressed its admirers because, they say, it does what it says it will do: Get rid of the dirt that nothing else can budge.

The Magic Eraser is more than just another cleaning product crowding the shelves - "not just another bottle of juice," as Mr. Clean research and development manager Alan Goldstein puts it. Its success marks the rejuvenation of a brand that - though snoozy in recent years - still had a lot of valuable consumer recognition and credibility. The product's success, Goldstein said, "showed the power of the icon" - the bald guy with the big arms and the gold earring.

"Hidden secret"

Procter & Gamble first discovered the cleaning aid that became the Magic Eraser a few years ago in Japan. "It was a hidden secret even in Japan," Gilbreath, the brand manager, said. It's a cleaning stick made of melamine foam. Melamine is a resin used in construction and the automotive industry as a sound barrier and flame retardant. It also imparts strength and is used in such products as dinnerware and laminate counter tops.

When the foam is dampened slightly, "It takes off stuff that used to take a lot of elbow grease and other special cleaners or abrasive products. It literally is a magic eraser," Gilbreath said.

The first tests with U.S. focus groups were duds. Consumers "hated it. It didn't speak their language," Goldstein, the R&D manager, said. The product had to be positioned not as a cleaning sponge, because it isn't a sponge, but as an eraser that can rub away soils nothing else can handle.

The eraser is moistened with water so it adheres slightly to the surface to be cleaned. (Mr. Clean likens this to licking your finger when you turn a page.) Then it is rubbed over the spot or stain. With repeated uses it crumbles slightly, as a pencil eraser does. After a number of uses, it is pretty well disintegrated and is ready to be thrown away.

Once consumers caught onto the idea of cleaning in a different way, the product took off.

That was a big leap for the Mr. Clean line. Gilbreath calls it "the radical evolution - or revolution - of an all-purpose cleaner." Consumers think of Mr. Clean as a liquid cleaner. It is also available as a spray or as a wipe, "but those are really liquids in a different form," he said. "This is pretty radical, in that it's a block of special foam that with water alone is activated. It's definitely different."

He said: "We expected the Magic Eraser to become a nice little addition to our all-purpose cleaning business. It's become kind of a sensation."

"Mr. Clean is back"

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.

- Commercial jingle, 1958

In 1958, "your whole house and everything that's in it" was cleaned one way, Goldstein says. Today, we don't clean our homes and their contents with just one cleaning product. Different products do different things.

"Time is extremely valuable," Goldstein said. "It's not just about, "Save me time.' It's about thoroughly cleaning with ease, and that's where Mr. Clean's equity comes about. It's a trusted name. We're innovating, and we want to show that Mr. Clean is back, better than ever, doing a thorough job. Mr. Clean was sleeping for a while, for better or worse. This is bringing new news to a mature category."

Goldstein was involved in the development of another Mr. Clean product this year: the AutoDry Car Wash, which sends water sheeting off your car so you don't have to hand-dry it to avoid water spots.

Coming this fall is the Magic Eraser Duo. The same white eraser is topped with a piece of blue, highly absorbent sponge. "The blue side gets the mess, the white side gets the marks," Gilbreath chanted. Researchers watched how consumers used the Magic Eraser and found that many of them had the eraser in one hand and a paper towel in the other, to blot up any water from the eraser and to pick up the crumbles. The Duo is supposed to solve that problem as well as accommodating dirt and messes that are best handled with a sponge.

The biggest consumer complaint, based on online postings, is that the Magic Eraser disintegrates more quickly than users would like. A typical comment: "It does get "used up' pretty fast, but it's quite inexpensive so well worth it for what I save in time and effort," esandor212 said on the epinions site. Wrote jdhauer: "I went through my four-pack in a single day, removing smudges and crayon throughout my 3,000-square-foot house. Granted, I had a lot of spots on the kitchen linoleum . . . (and) about three years' worth of wall scuffs."

The company says the gradual disintegration is a characteristic of the material, and the wear depends on how each consumer uses the eraser. Some scrub more energetically than others.

Some users wish it came in a larger size. Some note that if you scrub hard, it may remove the paint from a painted wall. It is not intended for use on polished, glossy, brushed, satin or dark surfaces.

Its only competitor at the moment seems to be the Xtreme Sponge, also made of melamine foam and distributed by a company in Hurricane, Utah. The company has no retail outlets in the Tampa Bay area but the sponge can be purchased online, at www.xtremesponge.com

Gilbreath, the brand manager, said he was aware of a "couple of things that are starting to show up from competitors to capture some of the sales we've created."

The company won't release sales figures, but "we're very, very happy with the results," spokeswoman Lachelle Lewis said. Last year, P&G's fabric and home-care division, which includes Mr. Clean as well as such brands as Tide, Dawn, Joy and Swiffer, reported annual sales of $12.6-billion. That division represents 29 percent of the company's $43.7-billion in sales from 300 brands.

Mr. Clean continues to sift through the thousands of e-mails from satisfied consumers who write in, saying, "Hey, did you know you could use it for this, it really works."

Said Gilbreath: "If we have 10,000 people taking time out of their day to tell us how great the product is, in an age of "everybody's busy,' there's got to be 100 times that many telling their friends and their book groups."

- Judy Stark can be reached at 727 893-8446 or stark@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 23, 2004, 10:14:47]


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