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Plumber draws a straight Flush

Chris Elke’s van depicts a three-act drama where a plumber saves a damsel in distress. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

On the side of Chris Elke’s van, in a three-act drama, a woman meets the man of her dreams (assuming she dreamt her feet were wet): a plumber.

Act 1: The toilet is overflowing. The woman glances at the raging loo with distrust, fear. She calls the phone number for a superhero.

Act 2: Showing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscles and Jimmy Carter’s teeth, The Flush tames that toilet with three quick plunger “thups.”

Act 3: The Flush celebrates success by growing more teeth. The woman looks serene, knowing The Flush fixed the toilet, won’t fleece her and maybe will dry her feet.

She represents the typical consumer. We hire electricians, mechanics, plumbers and many other professionals, and yet we have no grasp of what they do, how they do it or whether they are charging a fair price.

A plumber sticks his head under the sink, rattles a few pipes, declares some plumbing obscurities, then says, “Well, this is going to cost … .”

We cringe and picture a number we pray is too high.

Elke removes some of that anxiety.

Six years ago, while holding a postage stamp depicting The Flash superhero, the owner of the two-man Chris Elke Plumbing in Madison decided he wanted a comic strip of a plumbing superhero on the side of his work van.

He made the natural, at least for plumbers, leap from Flash to Flush, tracked down an illustrator and had a printer work up a three-panel comic strip of the bathroom nightmare. If he ever expands to two trucks, he said, he probably will introduce The Clog, a wiry, greasy guy who is The Flush’s nemesis.

“I was not consciously trying to think of an image for the company,” Elke said. “I just didn’t want a typical white van.”

He wanted attention. On the way home from the printer, he got it.

A developer gutting an 18-unit apartment building in Madison saw The Flush, called and offered him a $28,000 contract, one of Elke’s largest.

The Flush grabs the eye — one woman reading the cartoon rear-ended the car in front of her, another called Elke a male chauvinist pig because the strip shows a woman needing a man — and also taps into the psyches of potential customers. Markus Brauer, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls it priming, the use of images or words to activate a feeling in customers.

Think “smartphone.” Imagine how many branding and marketing tests that word survived. People think “intelligence” when they pick up those phones, the way test subjects, Brauer said, walk more slowly when presented with the word “elderly.”

Elke’s only misstep, Brauer said, was the woman with the wet feet.

“The guy made a mistake by making the woman too blonde and too young,” Brauer said. “People want to relate to the character. It would have been better if he drew the woman slightly older and less pretty.”

But The Flush still conjures thoughts of safety, trust and compassion. Customers might not know what Elke is doing under those sinks, but they probably skip the pre-billing cringe.

“I don’t think,” Brauer said, “you expect a superhero to charge you more than he should.”

Chris Thompson is the editor at The Daily Reporter. His nickname in college was “The Flush,” albeit for different reasons.

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