Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Selling Stuff to Men

In a nearby communal shower room, there is a corner unit where each person who uses the shower has an individual shelf. On these shelves, gender segregation rules.

Some shelves are filled with products like these:

1) "Gingerbread" by Pink Cow: "A Very Warm Bath & Shower Gel. 1. A scent filled to the brim with bear hugs, and sweet memories. 2. Be dreamsome ... paint a unicorn in pink and lime. 3. Say hurrah for 'NO PARABENS'. (Recycle me and I may come back as a blanket)" Text on the back reads "Massage over skin whilst in the bath or shower and let the cheeky bubbles kiss your skin with softness."

2) "Body Wash" by Sanctuary Spa, Covent Garden: "Gently cleanse, invigorate and soften your skin with moisturising sesame oil, smoothing essential oils and fragrant spices"

3) "nourish Shower Therapy" by Radox: "be nice to your skin, with shea butter & ginger shower cream"

Other shelves sport bottles more like this:

1) Alpecin "Caffeine Shampoo" Hair Energizer: "Stimulates hair roots during washing. With patented skin activator - Reduces hair loss."

2) "Ice Dive Shower Gel" by Adidas: "Developed with athletes". Text on the back reads "adidas Ice Dive PRO ENERGY shower gel for men: Unique energising fragrance, enriched with marine salts, pH respect/Dermo-tested formula."

3) Dove "Men+care Body and Face Wash": FRESH AWAKE energising scent (micro moisture)

4) Dove "Men+care Body and Face Wash": CLEAN COMFORT mild formula - micro moisture technology.

There are some pretty obvious differences between the first set of products and the second set. The first set focuses on sensation: scent, kiss, softness, gently, smoothing, fragrant; the second set seems to be more about action: stimulates, activator, athletes, energising, technology. The most verbose of the first set is committed to whimsy: bear hugs, sweet memories, dreamsome, unicorn; the most verbose of the second set is dedicated to improvement: developed, energising, enriched. The first is "filled to the brim" whilst the second is "enriched". The first is quirky; the second scientific. The first espouses gentleness; the second espouses aggression.

I think we all know how products are marketed towards 'men' and 'women'. These bathroom products are fairly typical examples. What is interesting in this case is the response they provoked in me. I am used to products being marketed as "normal" and "girl version" - (see car gadgets, work tools, kids' toys*). It's easy to interpret, in many cases, that "normal" is, well, normal, and "girl version" is kinda ridiculous. The girl version of any "normal" product will often be pink or purple in colour, appeal to whimsy, lightheartedness, romance, flowers or the like. Now, there's nothing wrong with pink, purple, whimsy, lightheartedness, romance or flowers. The problem is how those differences are made to look like that - like differences - by their positioning against the "normal" version of these products. Because the "normal" version lacks these distinctions, the things that are added to make something "girl version" are additions to normal, and thus are produced as excessive, which can also be read as frivolous, trivial, decorative, etc. (See how all these words are code for "feminine"?) The point is that the normal version is basic, and the girl version is excessive. So far, so Gender Binary 101.

What's interesting about these bathroom products is how excessive the men's version looks to me. There is something laughable about those appeals to what seems to be extreme masculinity. Scientific formulas! Athletic prowess! Magic hair regrowth! And yet the appeals to what seems to be extreme femininity are no less laughable ("paint a unicorn in pink and lime" ... ?!). But I am acclimatised to extreme femininity in bathroom products. When it comes to body cleaning products, it is the "girl version" which is normal, and the men's version which is produced as excessive. Note that 3 out of 4 men's products explicitly state that they are for men, while none of the women's products mention gender. Body cleaning products are implicitly coded as feminine from the get-go, meaning that products that want to appeal to a different target market need to explicitly identify that market. Thus we get square gun-metal grey bottles and clean straight lines like this as opposed to curved shapes, flowing lines and soft images like this.

Bathroom products are not the only area where the girl-version is the norm from which boy-version deviates (see also recipe books, pregnancy books and home cleaning products). However, cooking, child-rearing and housework are things that are constructed, however wrongheadedly, as 'women's business', and so the normalising of femininity in products associated with these topics is understandable (if annoying and ridiculous). One would think of bodily hygiene, on the other hand, as being non-gendered - we all need to keep clean. But no, it has to be produced as girly, because women care about being clean (and soft and scented, of course) whereas men only wash because they absolutely have to. I'm not saying that this is true, of course - only that for some reason, advertising companies seem to think that these are the narratives they must promote in order to sell stuff to 'men' and 'women'. (What does one buy if one isn't a man or a woman ... ?) We should all be insulted by this, no matter what gender we are.

* I am aware that by providing only 'normal' and 'girl' links here, I am ignoring the 'boy' versions of the same pages. However, in all of these examples, it is remarkable how closely the 'boy' versions resemble the 'normal' versions, which is precisely my point. See my search for boys' toys, girls' toys and children's toys. In terms of the range of colours and items the non-gendered search is similar to the boys' search (although it's interesting that the 'boys' toys' search also turns up what looks like soft porn aimed at both men and women, as well as products aimed at adult men, whilst the other two searches return only 'children's' items). On the 'girls' toys' search, the range of products is smaller (mostly dolls, dolls' accessories and miniature household products like ironing boards and ovens) and there is not a single item that doesn't include the colour pink. My point is that the boys' version, whilst different from the non-gendered version, is not as different from that version as the girls' version is.


  1. Great post, Ollie. :) I think that people do forget that sometimes the generic can skew feminine.

    I would cut the producers of these hygeine products a little slack because they aren't selling basic human hygeine; they're selling surplus human hygeine. There are generic products for hygeine, cheap store brand shampoo's that don't contain verbage any more complicate than: 1. Wash 2. Rinse 3. Repeat. When you're trying to sell scented body wash and your competitors seem to dominate the feminine market, or you yourself dominate the feminine market but still want to expand... Hey, there's the masculine market right there. Men aren't buying our feminine products; How do we pull them away from cheap generics and/or spartan wash routines that consist of shampoo, a bar of Dial soap, and the continued usage of whatever deoderant their mom used to buy them when they were a teenager?

    When I do feel insulted is when I feel there are actual insults in the ad campaign: the suggestion that only people stupid enough to wear dragons on their clothes would be stupid enough not to choose our lite beer, men who don't buy our burgers don't have working testicles, men who don't drive our cars will be repugnant to attractive women - It's all that garbage, that gets to me. If I *want* the pink herbal shampoo with the picture of the woman in white gauze running through a meadow then my motivation be damned, I don't deserve to be made fun of for that. I'm okay with folks saying 'I want to sell this to men what would accomplish that?' but their answer shouldn't be 'shame; appeal to fear of failure, homophobia, gynophobia, femmephobia, and general cowardice.' Or just as bad "Hey moron. Is washing your own hair hard? Buy my shampoo." :/

    1. Lol, spot on. I hate that rash of baby/cleaning products which play on the "LOL boys are stupid" theme. Again, insulting to all genders!

      Good points about the producers, too. Ideally, you're right, that's how it should work. But it seems that all too often, adverts fall into the "why should you buy this product? Because you're not a silly, frilly GIRL, of course!" I guess it's the easiest one to go for.

      And, of course, the argument comes back to capitalism: the way to sell most stuff is not to make one product that appeals to everyone, but make multiple products that appeal to different markets, and make sure the dividing lines between those markets are completely impermeable.

      Thanks for stopping by, Jay :-)

  2. Great post! I have been especially struck by the observation you made about the difference in the containers these products come in: dark colors and hard lines for men's products, pastels and curvy shapes for women's. This is particularly interesting to me because most of these products are "private" ones. It's not like we're likely to showcase our deodorant and body wash bottles for a crowd. In fact, it's very likely that the only people who will ever see them are the person using them, unless it's a shared shower--and usually if you're in close enough proximity with someone to share a shower, you have plenty of other ways to observe his/her masculinity/femininity. But I guess that what they're really selling is a sense of self, a way to define your identity (or at least part of your identity), and maybe we need the visuals to help make that feel substantial.

    1. Yes, totally. Also, I have an idea that this is sometimes played as a joke in sitcoms or adverts - you know, a woman goes into her boyfriend's bathroom and makes a face at all his girly products? It intends to suggest that the man is somehow suspicious - feminine or gay (the horror). It strikes a similar note as the discovery of women's underwear in a guy's place. Obviously you wouldn't want to be revealed as a girly shower-gel user, so I think yes, it's very much selling a sense of self that you can be secure in personally and advertise to others as well.