Human skin creates an illusion, hiding one’s insides with an outer layer that makes up one’s physical appearance. William Ian Miller calls human skin, “the barrier between the soul and the world.” Since the skin is what the world sees of the self, its qualities are often conflated with moral depth and personal traits, imbuing the skin with substantial symbolism. For instance, the color of one’s skin often leads to assumptions about one’s place in a social hierarchy. Furthermore, skin can even be gendered. When one thinks of clean, smooth, soft, hairless, and fragrant skin, one usually thinks of a woman’s skin; for, purity is often associated with femininity. This poses a challenge for men’s personal care companies, whose brand managers must situate their products within constructed myths of identity, of which masculinity plays a large role. The quality of soaps, deodorants, and grooming products is difficult to discern, and so, people often choose personal care products based on the identity myths that are promoted through branding in order to instill certain qualities in the skin and identity. In light of this, how do different men’s personal care companies effectively brand their products with ideals of masculinity?
The works of three social theorists provide a theoretical framework for examining masculinity in men’s personal care brand commercials. Edmund Burke’s distinction between the beautiful and sublime, Jeffrey Alexander’s theory of iconic consciousness, and William Ian Miller’s characterization of the disgusting aid in this inquiry. Through analysis of three ad campaigns by successful companies known for their targeted brand strategies, Old Spice, Axe, and Dove, it becomes clear that although men’s personal care advertisements are diverse in their representations of masculinity, they all instill their brands with meanings of power and strength by employing sublime materiality and social narratives.
Investigation of men’s personal care brands relies on existing literature on materiality, iconic consciousness, and social meanings. Sixteenth-century theorist Edmund Burke, known for A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, believed that all sensuous experiences can be reduced to pleasure and pain, which are associated with the beautiful and sublime, respectively. Burke defines beautiful materials as small, smooth, delicate, soft, and gently varied, and characterizes them by pleasure, relaxation, and love. On the other hand, sublime materials cause fear, astonishment, admiration, and respect, and they exhibit characteristics such as magnificence (the sensation of power or difficulty in creation), vastness, hardness, roughness, darkness, obscurity, or infinity (Burke, 2008). Burke’s description of beauty resonates with traits of the archetypal female figure: smallness, delicacy, curviness, and smoothness; whereas sublimity is attributed to the ideal male physique, characterized by power, vastness, hardness, angularity, and roughness (Champagne, 2010). Because the materiality of gender is divided by the beautiful-sublime binary, men’s personal care companies appeal to sublime characteristics in their ads to emphasize the masculinity of their brands.
However, the aesthetic experiences of ads are defined by more than their material traits. Unlike Burke, Alexander believes that aesthetic experiences are shaped not only by the materiality of the object, or the physical properties of an object that engage the senses, but also its discursive depth, or the meanings shaped by codes, narratives, and norms constructed through social discourses (Alexander, 2008). For an object to be an icon, Alexander says that the material surface must immerse the subject into the object and its meaning. He explains that iconic consciousness occurs in an individual when “an aesthetically shaped materiality signifies social value.” These iconic experiences influence how people feel a part of their social surroundings, develop an understanding of cultural standards, and maintain a sense of self (Alexander, 2010). For instance, performances of masculinity set the ideals and standards for the appearances and behaviors that signify maleness, such as a chiseled physique, large size, beard, low voice, or commanding presence, which are all features that fit into Burke’s sublime category. Because culturally constructed moral binaries are attached to these traits, generally, people judge males’ moral depth on the degree to which they exemplify masculinity on the surface; in society’s collective iconic consciousness, a manly man is a good man. Effective men’s personal care advertisements are potent for consumers because, by drawing viewers into their advertisements and tapping into social narratives and norms, brand managers turn their products into icons of masculinity.
Out of the many products that appeal to cultural narratives and identity, personal care products are particularly tied to the formation of the self due to their use on the skin, which Miller calls, “a covering for the deeper self.” In The Anatomy of Disgust, Miller explains that the skin hides one’s disgusting, “oozing innards” and creates the illusion of the soul. As the soul’s outer covering, the skin “bears a heavy symbolic load,” becoming a powerful indicator of moral depth. Since touch and smell are the senses “most intimately involved in sensing the disgusting” (Miller, 1997), personal care products such as body wash and deodorant must serve to strip the skin of smells and textures that cause disgust, rid the body of all imperfections, and aid in fashioning the ideal self. Therefore, it is crucial that personal care brands associate themselves with certain identity values so that they become necessary to the continuous process of identity formation. As gender is an essential part of identity, men’s personal care brands appeal to masculinity to entice men into buying their products.
To examine the portrayal of masculinity in ads for men’s personal care products, I chose three brands based on the following criteria. In a study of male consumers’ attitudes toward men’s grooming and personal care products in 2015, 67% of men said they were “brand loyal and buy all grooming products from one specific brand” (Statista, 2015). Therefore, I chose companies that have branded themselves as full-service personal care brands, selling multiple personal care products encompassing soap, deodorants, and grooming products. Secondly, I selected companies that hold a significant share of the men’s personal care market, which was examined through synthesizing data from sales in the U.S. in 2014 (Statista, 2014). Lastly, I chose brands that have utilized a cultural branding model, in which brands turn their products into material condensations of particular narratives and identity myths, rather than brands that base their advertising on simply the quality of their product (Holt, 2004). Given these constraints, three companies emerged: Old Spice, Axe, and Dove Men+Care. To examine each brand, I selected one ad each from Old Spice, Axe, and Dove Men+Care which were representative of their ad campaigns in 2015 and 2016. Because the materiality of men’s personal care products is formed to reflect the depth of social meanings fabricated in ads, the materiality and social meanings of men’s personal care advertisements rather than the physical products themselves will be the focus of this inquiry. Case studies of these advertisements reveal the various ways in which men’s personal care companies attract consumers with ideals of masculinity today.
Old Spice has long been known for their blatant displays of traditional masculine ideals and for their unconventional commercials. In one of their most famous ads in 2010, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” actor Isaiah Mustafa appealed to female fantasies and masculine ideals of confidence and sexual potency, urged women to make their man an Old Spice man, and delivered the slogan, “Smell like a man, man” (Old Spice, 2010). In the following five years, Old Spice experimented with various branding approaches with less success. Scrambling to strengthen their branding myth, in 2016, Old Spice embarked on a new campaign: “Smell ‘Em Who’s Boss.”
One of their most popular ads of the campaign, called #SmellEm for short, is entitled “Perfect Ending.” The commercial takes place in a Western frontier town, where a cheering crowd of townspeople follows behind a muscular, slightly bearded, European man who is riding a horse that has a bathtub for a body. A dirty-looking man with long hair and a long beard spits on the ground and looks at the bathing man resentfully as the marching bathtub-horse pulls him along by his tied hands. Un-phased by the shouting crowd and the conquered man, the bathing man majestically lathers his hair with foaming shampoo and basks in its scent as grand opera music resounds, “smells like he’s our hero,” in the background. As the horse leads the bathing man and his captive out of the town and into the open plain, a foot holding a trumpet emerges from the bathtub suds, and the man plays a triumphant tune just before the opera music reaches a crescendo. The ad closes with an image of Old Spice’s various products and the slogan, “Smell ‘em who’s boss” (Old Spice, 2016).
The materiality of the ad embodies masculine traits of power and dominance while utilizing elements of sublimity and disgust to further define the Old Spice myth. The appearance of the bathing man epitomizes sublime male characteristics with his large, angular physique and the dark hair on his head and beard– a description which all the men in the #SmellEm campaign are consistent. The grand, ominous opera music evokes feelings of fear of and then reverence for the man as he victoriously marches through the town. Furthermore, the bizarre, puzzling body of the horse and the surprising foot that sticks out from the suds while holding a trumpet are perplexing, astonishing, and seem impossible to create or to accomplish in reality; they exhibit elements of the sublime. The sublimity of the ad augments the power of the bathing man and signals his masculinity and superior moral depth and abilities.
In contrast to the clean, fit, bathing man, the conquered man embodies all the characteristics that society imbues with distasteful moral depth. His clothes and face are dirty, his long hair and beard are unkempt, he spits on the ground, and he appears to be on the heavier side. His dirtiness and the length of his overgrown hair seem unhygienic; although hair is an important component of manliness, too much hair results in feelings of disgust (Miller, 1997). Additionally, the man’s slightly rounded physique is inconsistent with the angularity required by sublime masculinity. The townspeople openly show contempt for the conquered man, who is the antithesis and foil to the bathing man’s cleanliness, superiority, and power.
Finally, the storyline of “Perfect Ending” situates Old Spice in the iconic, romanticized narrative of the Wild West in which a heroic cowboy comes to town and vanquishes the town villain. Except in this version, the cowboy is a man washing his hair with Old Spice. The ad portrays the bathing man as superhuman in his ability to vanquish the other man and to continue to lather his hair with shampoo without batting an eye at the crowd, his bathtub horse, or the trumpet that appears for his use. The ad instills the heroism, masculinity, and victory of the Wild West narrative into the Old Spice brand. The material components of the ad, in combination with this narrative, create a change in viewers’ iconic consciousness: the act of washing one’s hair with Old Spice becomes a ritual of basking in and magnifying one’s glory, power, and dominance. Hence, consumers who wish to be powerful and dominant, defining traits of sublime masculinity, will hope that Old Spice can bestow upon them those attributes.
While the Old Spice brand extends the promise of triumph and dominion to men, Axe, on the other hand, is infamous for offering sexual virility and prowess to Axe-users. Several of their notable slogans in the past six years include, “Spray more, get more,” “The cleaner you are, the dirtier you get,” and “Clean your balls.” For Axe, the ability to attract women was the ultimate test of masculinity. However, in their 2016 ad campaign, Axe adopted a surprising new approach to masculinity, beginning with their ad, “Find Your Magic.”
The commercial satirizes other hyper-masculine men’s personal care, grooming, and soap ads and sets out to reject the prescribed set of masculine gender norms, in favor of helping each man that uses Axe to become a better version of his authentic self. The ad begins with digital billboards of muscular, shirtless men and fire explosions, and a male voice-over mockingly says, “C’mon, a six pack?” The ad then runs through a diverse cast of men who each “rock” their own individual style. The men who appear in the ad include, for example, a man dancing on a treadmill at a gym, stylish metrosexuals, a man running naked with another woman away from a squad of policemen, men voguing at a gay ball, and a man spinning in his wheelchair on the dance floor with a woman in his lap. The voice-over narrates each scene: “Who needs a six pack when you got a nose? Or a nose, when you got the suit? Now, you don’t need a suit when you got the moves. Or moves, when you got the fire. Or the fire, when you rock those heels. Or the heels when you ride those wheels” (Axe Grooming for Men, 2016). Each scene portrays a man who has confidence to go against the grain in his own way, a common counterculture narrative which rejects mainstream culture.
Even though the ad appears to diverge from traditional characterizations of masculinity, in reality, Axe is claiming that these diverse characteristics can all converge into the masculinity category. Each of the scenes highlight the power and strength of the men. For instance, even the voguing men, who would traditionally be viewed as effeminate, are portrayed as powerful because of their impressive dancing skills and because the ball judges give them high scores of ten. Additionally, the man in the wheelchair is not simply dancing by himself; he is whirling wildly across the dancefloor, showing a woman a good time and demonstrating his skill and confidence. The ad seems to say that whatever makes one unique can be done in a powerful, masculine way. The sublime elements of the ad reinforce the power and strength of the men: the intense electric guitar music in the background creates a quality of fierceness and magnificence, and the speed at which the ad cuts between scenes creates a striking overload of sensuous stimulation. Though each man in the ad is distinct and unique, they are all presented in a thrill-seeking, powerful light and framed within the sublime.
As the commercial continues, it begins to enter overtly gender-normative territory, highlighting the characteristics that make men traditionally manly. The voice-over states, “Who needs all that when you got some balls. And who needs all that when you get the door. When you got the dough, the brains, the touch, the ‘aw.’” Images of a man clapping pizza dough flour in the air, a man flicking piece of chalk at the camera, a woman experiencing sexual pleasure, and a well-groomed man with kittens around him flash across the screen. The voice-over punctuates the ad with, “That’s right, who needs some other thing when you got your thing.” Cutting to a scene of a bathroom sink, he says, “Now work on it” (Axe Grooming for Men, 2016). Axe makes itself a key component of finding and defining oneself, an important process of the identity formation narrative. After bombarding viewers with images of diverse, male power, Axe presents itself as a brand for men who want to be themselves, but in a powerful, irresistible, and masculine way. The slogan, “Find your magic,” has a double meaning for viewers: find the personal qualities that make you powerful, and choose the Axe product that makes you more confident- the feeling of power. The identity-formation narrative and the sublime, material components of the ad imbue Axe with a meaning of fierceness, power, and dominance. In tandem with the counterculture narrative which defines Axe from other hyper-masculine men’s personal care brands, in consumers’ iconic consciousness, Axe becomes a sensuous carrier of masculinity and a material condensation of the identity-formation narrative. For consumers, Axe becomes a tool for every man to gain confidence and superiority.
A third men’s personal care brand competes to establish itself as an icon of masculinity in society’s collective iconic consciousness: Dove Men+Care. Since Dove was originally a women’s soap brand, brand managers for Dove Men+Care had a particularly difficult challenge in branding their products for men. To define their products, the brand took a different approach from their competitors in which they celebrated “a new definition of strength: one with care at its center.” The heart of Dove Men+Care’s branding strategy has been that true strength comes from showing care to those around you and to yourself (Dove, n.d.).
In 2015, Dove released an ad called, “#RealStrength,” which solidified the association of caring with masculinity by appealing to the narrative and material experiences of fatherhood. The commercial is filled with uplifting, heartwarming piano music (much unlike the previous two ads) and consists of a montage of short scenes in which people aged toddler to adult call out to their fathers in different situations: to name a few, a young toddler jumps into his father’s open arms in a pool, a baby says “Dada” for the first time, a little boy stuck on the monkey bars desperately yells, “daddy” and then gets rescued, a father brushes his squirmy daughter’s hair, a dad gives his son a kiss on the forehead before prom, and a daughter gets choked up at her wedding while dancing with her father. At the end of the ad, the words appear on the screen: “What makes a man stronger? Showing that he cares.” A male voice-over concludes the ad with, “Dove Men+Care. Care makes a man stronger” (Dove Men+Care, 2015).
The many experiences shown in the ad are snapshots of different moments in the fatherhood narrative, which is deeply embedded in society’s iconic consciousness as a valuable and worthwhile journey. The ad presents fathers as providers of support, safety, love, and fun, and as stronger men because they care for their children. By inserting their product into the discourse around caring fathers, Dove Men+Care becomes a material condensation of fatherly care and strength.
Each scene in the ad is a close-up of a single moment in fatherhood and puts a spotlight on the materiality of those moments. Most of the scenes center around the senses of sound and touch. The way each person says “dad,” “daddy,” or “dada” evokes specific emotions from the viewers, and the sounds of laughter, crying, and kissing summon memories of one’s own experiences as a child or father. Each tactile interaction between father and child (laughing, catching, running, jumping, hugging, tickling, swinging, crying, etc.) reveals a father’s care for his child and is iconic of one’s own childhood or fatherhood memories. The materiality of each moment draws the viewer into the ad and immerses them in each experience, making the ad iconic of the joys of fatherhood.
Though “#RealStrength” relies on sublimity much less than Old Spice’s “Perfect Ending” and Axe’s “Find Your Magic” does, elements of the sublime are still present in the ad. The music begins softly and poignantly, signifying the tenderness of the father-child relationship; however, towards the end of the ad, the music takes on characteristics of the sublime; it intensifies, accelerates, and reaches a loud crescendo. Additionally, the speed and intensity of the scenes in the montage also accelerate, creating an overload of sensuous, aesthetic information. The change in the music and montage from tender and relaxed to intense and rapid mirrors the two characteristics that Dove believes men should embody: care and strength. The ad’s sublime ending underscores the strength that Dove wishes to associate with care.
Interestingly, though the ad seems to reject traditional forms of masculinity, Dove Men+Care is actually attempting to recode masculinity. The role of the caregiver or of the caring parent is often assigned to women and mothers; for, care and tenderness are traditionally gendered in the feminine category. Strength, on the other hand, stands in the masculine category. By inserting men into the activities associated with female care and calling the men “stronger,” Dove Men+Care makes care enter the territory of masculinity, and men become signifiers of both strength and fatherly care. A man who is caring is also stronger, and hence, more manly. The use of the fatherhood narrative, sensuous materiality, and the sublime along with the recoding of masculinity turns products by Dove Men+Care into signifiers of care, but more importantly, strength.
Though each of these brands appear to have taken a distinct branding approach to masculinity in their advertisements, each brand utilizes materiality, sublimity, and social narratives and discourses to turn their products into material condensations of power and strength. Old Spice’s version of strength consists of dominance, magnificence, and victory. Axe’s brand embodies a strength that comes from owning and honing what makes one unique. And finally, Dove Men+Care’s strength arises from the ability to show care for others. The fact that each of these three successful, distinct men’s personal care brands believe that their most effective branding strategy is to instill in their products meanings of strength indicates the enduring importance of strength and power to the male psyche. Even though gender norms have been changing for men and women, and some men’s personal care brands have transitioned to more diverse, re-coded representations of masculinity to cater to these changes, power and strength remain central to the formation of a masculine identity, at least when it comes to men’s personal care brands. When one washes and grooms the skin and hair with products that embody power, the skin and hair can smell like, feel like, and look like power, and one’s powerful appearance can indicate a strong moral depth in the eyes of society. The branding strategies of Old Spice, Axe, and Dove Men+Care demonstrate that power and strength persist as fundamental components of male identity.
Written for SOCY 352: Iconic Material Culture, with Jeffrey Alexander and Anne Marie Champagne
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