One of the fun things about living in a consumer-driven country is that over time we are exposed to enough advertising that one may gain the vision to see beyond the surface messages and glimpse the naked ambition of the advertisers. Like a watchmaker opening the cover to reveal a watch’s movement and knowing instinctively the function of each gear, it becomes second nature to mentally reverse-engineer marketing to the point that one can more or less replay the advertising agency’s pitch meeting in one’s head.
A marvelous example of this is the recent deluge of men’s beauty products. The giant wizard’s head with the booming voice says, “Guys, buy this stuff because it will cause sexy women to helplessly desire you.” Listen with your marketing filter switched on, however, and you can hear the little man behind the curtain actually saying, “Women already give us an Imperial fuckload of their money for beauty products. You men have been off the hook for far too long.”
Ah, but beauty products have long been the province of females, and the stigma among males against too strong of a concern for one’s appearance is practically impenetrable. All of those lotions, sprays, sponges, and soaps are girly stuff. Moreover, the manufactured social fears that compel their purchase are girly as well. Not only do men not pay much attention to such matters, they avoid being witnessed to pay attention, lest other men call their masculinity into question. How then to crack this shell of social recalcitrance and reap the rich harvest of cash within?
Ladies and gentlemen of the Board, the answer, as always, is branding. First, every last trace of femininity must be sloughed off of these products like reptile skins. Then, since the products themselves would otherwise remain of little concern to men, our brand message must evoke other, unrelated things that men love – such as sex and cars.
The first crucial step is to name the product line. It needs a beefy, chiseled sort of name, infused with a hearty baritone and a double shot of testosterone; single words with single syllables, because anything remotely cerebral will not jive with the traditional male self-image that advertisers have long crafted to sell them other products. Axe. Tag. Or perhaps, Rod.
Next comes the packaging: the eye-catcher at the store and the main line of defense against any doubts of masculinity. Color is important. Each product is dark and threatening, predominantly black, with candy apple red accents and silvered labels. Their shapes are bold and aggressive, and ergonomically shaped with rubberized grips and finger indentations, so that each bottle of shower gel closely resembles the throttle stick on an F-22 fighter jet.
Since a great deal of the money to be made in beauty products lies in accessories and helper products, men must be lured into buying these as well, but in most cases this requires re-branding them completely. For example, women use a sort of gauzy, poofy plastic sponge for applying soaps and cleansing their skin. This is called a loofah, a word that in itself evokes clouds and pillows, so that won’t do.
Instead they make it sleek and angular and call it a detailer shower tool. Apparently it isn’t girly if, instead of exfoliating, you feel more like you are applying carnauba wax to a ’69 Trans Am. Additionally, instead of an adorable travel size spray, men get to carry around a bullet in their new man-bags.
Now it all comes down to the ad campaign. These commercials paint Axe and Tag as nothing less than a highly contagious pheromone super flu in convenient spray-on form. These products, so goes the message, will directly intoxicate all women in the area with raw sexual desire, so that they stop dead in their tracks and pursue the wearer with hypnotic hormonal aggression, like the Cinemax version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Some of these ads even dare to depict women as part of a scenario more modern than the usual Neanderthal head-clubbing dynamic, only to correct this aberrant situation and return them to the role for which they are so clearly made. In one body wash ad from Gillette (the company which also happens to be responsible for Tag products), a young, attractive, and intelligent woman, who — along with her female peers — has probably struggled twice as hard to make it all the way to the board room, is reduced to a come-hither sex kitten by her amazing-smelling alpha male boss, who will no doubt be only too happy to help advance her career after hours beneath the glass ceiling of his penthouse suite.
Unsurprisingly, these male-focused ad campaigns have produced two of the most disturbing commercials in memory, both of which alarm in completely different ways. The first is the Axe “Dark Temptation” ad, promoting a vaguely chocolaty scented spray, in which the user transforms into pure chocolate, complete with creepy staring chocolate bunny bug-eyes. The mesmerized women he passes on the street takes the previous Axe ads to their messily logical end point by literally tearing the man limb from limb, a brutality in which the no less horny chocolate man is a cheerful participant in spite of himself.
The second is the entire series of Just For Men ads, which paint any man with a hint of grey in his hair as a social cast-off, and every woman as a shallow cougar whose interest depends entirely upon the man’s hair color. One ad even makes the laughable leap of logic to suggest a situation in which a son’s college hopes rest on his father dyeing his hair.
As amusingly transparent as all of this may seem to be, it appears to have worked. Perhaps the marketing truly is behind it all, or perhaps men genuinely think these are good products. Still, to me this demands a question: How many of the perceived differences between men and women are innately real, and how many of them rest squarely upon the carefully orchestrated message-streams of a corporation trying to make money?