Masculinity and personal care

Masculinity is an interesting social phenomenon. If irony and humour is to be put aside it’s very seldom viewed as an end in itself. Masculinity has a job. In it’s positive it serves and protects and as a negative it does damage and harasses. It’s either a hero or a nuisance. This can-do (or undo) attitude leaves little space for introspection and self-improvement.

So where does this leave men’s personal care? How do you convince traditional masculinity to take care of itself when all it wants to do is take care of business? The oldest trick in the book has been to use the one thing masculinity cares about more than anything else: femininity. By locking up the benefits of femininity in your brand proposition you sort of become the solution to a dilemma that’s been engineered by millions of years of evolution. But the ‘girls will like you if’ or ‘let her take care of you’ approach has been eroded by the feminist and gender equality movement (which argues that it’s not the job of one gender to take care of the other) and then by the metro sexual movement (which responded by proving that men can take care of themselves). Brands like Dove and Nivea, which are in essences quite feminine, can still flirt with traditional gender roles. But what can the more masculine brands do? It would seem that when gender roles become a joke, the only way is to respond to them jokingly.

Boys will be boys

Axe took on the most juvenile cohort of traditional masculinity: young men interested in young women. It’s an easy target and for the most requires the innovative and comical breaking of taboo. I imagine it was difficult not to go too far while at the same time staying far enough from the everyday as to not be confused for reinforcing actual behavior. On the unacceptable side of the line is objectification – something that has been reinforced by the horrors of university frat houses and date rapes. On the more acceptable side of that same line is the indulgence of comically unreal male fantasy.  But how do you ensure that you don’t get sucked into the anti-social side of the equation? The simplest answer is to tie yourself to a cultural landmark.

What Axe has done well was to leverage existing culturally heavy entities or cultural anchors. The old pickup line ‘did it hurt when you fell from heaven’ has far more gravitational pull than the sexualizing and objectifying of religious symbols. It’s a better known line, it has cultural relevance. It’s lame – so lame it’s funny and when a guy actually uses it it’s more often than not as a dare. Add to that the willingness of this demographic to embrace taboo and the message is free from the pull of religious taboo or gender inequality.

What about turning women into sex-zombnies? No problem. We know what it means. There is long history of men fantasizing over the synchronized group activities a group of in-shape women. Eric Prydz used it in his 2004 music video Call Me which in turn leveraged the 80’s leg warmer aerobic look. It also stood firmly in the late 90’s culture of almost ironically sexual music videos (Benni Benassi, Sam Obernik). Couch that in Axe’s existing culture of satire and it becomes difficult to plausibly accuse Axe of supporting misogyny. Note that this is not to say that no objectification or misogyny is or is not at work. I’m merely making the argument that by leveraging other cultural artifacts, we can borrow meaning and show how (in this case) we’re talking to a young man’s fantasy and not oppression. Whether a young man’s fantasy is oppressive remains to be debated.

A sophisticated man

After Old Spice’s original target audience (and subsequent positioning) became irrelevant, they had to change their angle to become attract a younger, edgier man. But it’s difficult to embrace masculinity in a time where it’s not quite as popular to be quite as overtly masculine. Old Spice was looking at an older group of men with different desires but the problem remained the same. And like the Axe ads, Old Spice over shot the mark so far as to become satire. Isaiah Mustafa was the first super-male to take the role as ‘the man your man could smell like’. It was made up of a series of overtly masculine, show-off activities used mostly to be more masculine than ‘your man’. It was the old trick, tying the solution to the original male dilemma (that of finding a partner) to your brand.  But it does so in a way that is so ridiculous that no argument would take off. It also allows us to make light of something that is outdated but maybe not as dead as we thought.

The Old Spice ads steered away from this jealousy root and tackled masculinity as power using an even bigger football star (literally). Terry Crews became the face of Old Space bringing to life the masculine quality of power.

The next generation of men

I was surprised when I first heard that there is now a real market for people aged 100 plus. Some beer brands even started looking into ‘senior citizen’ campaigns. Retirement funds weren’t the only people feeling the pressure of an ever-increasing life expectancy; brands suddenly had a new audience to talk to.

Climbing life expectancy is nothing new or interesting. But the effect it has on culture and how we restructure our society for this new class is. Where does this class fit in and what do they stand for. Tena Men does not shed light on the entire picture but it takes the tradition of satire (reserved for men of a younger age) and cantilevers it into older age, or as the commercial says, men of a certain age.

It’s a brilliant ad that features a man that seems like the man Dwight Schrute would be if Dwight Schrute became who he thought he was becoming. It’s a man in control of everything, he’s practically god – in fact at some point he does dance on water. He plays pool like a master, juggles chain saws, dominates chess and Black Jack and even manages to command a baby to be silent.

What is interesting however is the style of communication and the insight that I suspect sits behind this commercial. The youngest demographic of men pursues sex (one can say sexuality but that would almost be too much). The next age group looks for masculinity. Here, slightly older, power, strength and allure is the holy grail of masculinity, surrendering straight forward sex-appeal to the younger group. But then as this refines and turn to fatherhood we rarely see big campaigns in this space. Beer commercials have a comic take on male camaraderie but it’s very often a simple reflection of the ‘Axe boy’ residing in the ‘Old Spice man’.

The message is a message about control. More than urine leakage it’s a stage of life where you’re probably realizing how you are losing your grip on your own life. You’re well over the halfway mark and questions about your estate is raised in a fashion that does not necessarily leave you at the centre of the decision making process. And this is not addressing the sanity question. I was fortunate enough to know both my grandmothers but it also meant that I saw both sink into confusion as their minds were shutting down faster than their bodies. The context of masculinity however allows for comedy, which brings me to my second important point about this commercial.

Knowingly or unknowingly Tena negates the Old Elephant Bull Syndrome by talking to older men as if they are young men and addressing a feeble problem as if it is a masculine one. Tena takes a bold step and treats loss of control like the younger man’s pursuit of sophistication and the even younger man’s pursuit of beautiful girls. The commercial is knee-slappingly funny and the picture it paints (along side its fellow commercials) is both heartwarming and encouraging. Adult diapers are becoming as lucrative as baby diapers as the older demographic grows and birth rates drop. The potentially embarrassing quirks of old age will become more and more commonplace as health sciences advance. It is however important that we treat them as we treat the smell of sweat during puberty: as a signifier of life stage, rather than a sign of your retirement from society.

While the ad itself might turn out to be one of those ads where a creative team executed a great insight for a creative team (this is to say a team of young guys executed ‘keep control’ for a team of young guys), it still stands as a reminder that with longer life expectancy comes new needs, new threats to our sense of self that might require no more than reminding guys that they are still one of the guys – control or not.