'Smelly Feet' photo (c) 2007, twitter.com/mattwi1s0n - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Every Friday my family life column appears in several newspapers in Canada and the United States. Here is this week’s feature.

When I studied the “evils” of advertising in university, we investigated the unique marketing ploy for deodorants. In the early twentieth century companies figured out how to make this product, and now they had a problem on their hands. Up until that time, everybody just sort of smelled the same. Now they had to convince people to buy a product no one had ever thought of before.

Advertisers decided to tackle this problem by educating people on the fact that they stank. People, in droves, took the message to heart, and now we don’t stink nearly as much, though vans of moms with boys in hockey still aren’t that pleasant.

Today, though, advertisers are trying to tell us not that we stink, per se, but that our homes do. Whenever I watch TV, I’m struck by how many ads there are for those plug-in air fresheners. Perhaps it’s because I tend towards decorating shows rather than NHL games, but air fresheners are the product du jour. Given how much companies are devoting to advertising, people must be buying them by the cartful.

So do we really stink that badly? I can see a use for air fresheners in the aforesaid hockey van, but what about you living room? After all, if your house stinks, there’s an underlying problem that an air freshener can’t fix. At our home, it’s usually because someone has left a half-drunk cup of hot chocolate behind some sofa, and it has now congealed into a wobbly brown mess. Or it’s because I bought too many vegetables in a health frenzy a few weeks ago, and I haven’t yet gone through my fridge to throw out the green slime that remains.

Maybe you have a dog with a bladder problem, or at least an obedience problem. Maybe your fridge hasn’t been cleaned out since the Chretien years. Or maybe you know there’s a dirty diaper stashed somewhere, but you don’t know where and you’re afraid to look. Whatever the case, you know something just doesn’t smell right.

The smell problem in our homes, then, is really more related to our inability to keep a house clean than it is to our refusal to buy plug in air fresheners. After all, if you really do clean every week (or better still, get your kids to do it), the house is going to smell like Mr. Clean anyway.

These air fresheners, though, aren’t aimed at older people, who have trouble cleaning, or at single guys, who rarely do. They’re aimed at middle-class women who know their houses should at least be free of communicable diseases, even if they’re not spotless, and who actually do care, but don’t have the time or energy to get it done.

I have a sneaking suspicion, then, that perhaps this air freshener craze is a reflection of our society’s lack of ability to keep up with the basic household stuff. It’s just another symptom that we’re running ourselves too ragged and basic things aren’t getting done. Of course, it could also be a symptom of the fact that we’re buying homes that are too large, and then working so many hours to pay for them that we don’t have time to care for them, but perhaps that’s part and parcel of the same thing. We just don’t have time for things that our grandparents, even if they didn’t use deodorant, would have considered quite basic.

I don’t particularly like housework, but there can be something very peaceful and satisfying once you’ve finished. And it does get easier as the kids get older. I have a few friends who are pathetic housekeepers, and I’ve often considered an intervention—just do a massive clean once, and then teach them to maintain it.

If that’s what you need, maybe you should hire a cleaning service to come in and do it for you, just this once, to get you back on track. We all need a place to kick back and be ourselves without worry that the stench may kill us. So don’t just sweep the stench under the rug. Clean something. You just might find that life isn’t so stinky after all.

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