WASHINGTON – Pouty supermodel No. 1 says she likes a man with a little hair on his chest, “but definitely not on his back.”
Pouty supermodel No. 2 likes a man with a smooth stomach “to show off his six-pack,” according to the unidentified narrator who apparently speaks for her. She winks in agreement.
And pouty supermodel No. 3 says she prefers a man without any hair at all. She doesn’t think that’s weird? Narrator dude asks. “I don’t,” she confirms, with a purr.
Gillette, the razor giant, wants men to take it all, or at least much of it, off. In an ad campaign featuring the ubiquitous Kate Upton (she’s pouty supermodel No. 1), the company touts its ProGlide Styler as the device for the full-body treatment.
What’s remarkable about the Upton TV commercial is not just its basic message — guys, you should be shaving down there — but who’s delivering the message. In the spot, set amid a pool party that suggests the last days of Ancient Rome, women are set up as the arbiters of what it means to be manly, a role women rarely play in TV commercials. In this case, the women want what men demanded of women long ago — that they become hairless.
Advertisers have reduced men to hunks and beefcakes before. The most famous ad in this vein may have been a Diet Coke commercial in the mid-1990s that featured a model named Lucky Vanous stripping off his shirt at a construction site as a group of young women watched with lascivious delight from their office window. (Diet Coke “updated” the ad earlier this year with model Andrew Cooper.) It was supposed to be funny — a wry reversal on all those panting babes-in-bikinis beer commercials.
And advertisers have also long instructed men about what machismo is supposed to look like. Sunday afternoon football games are packed with TV commercials for pickup trucks, beer, tires, sports drinks and other products that stress strength, toughness, sweat and other supposedly male traits. Marketers have been defining manhood long before a popular Rolling Stones song immortalized the phenomenon: “When I’m watchin’ my TV, and a man comes on and tells me how white my shirts can be / But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.”
But men telling men to “man up” is one thing. Using women to do so is more unusual. Indeed, Gillette says the Upton campaign, called “What Women Want,” is the first in its 112-year history in which women take the lead in promoting a product for men.
The unusual approach reflected some culturally tricky terrain, said Susan Oguche, a company spokeswoman. So-called manscaping — Gillette prefers the term “body grooming” — was popular among bodybuilders and gay men before it began gaining mainstream acceptance more recently. Still, the notion of male hairlessness goes against traditional Western cultural norms, she acknowledged.
“It’s not a topic guys talk to one another about,” Oguche said. “So we felt this was a nonconfrontational way to talk to guys about something that’s pretty sensitive. We wanted to open up a conversation in a way that would take away the ‘ick’ factor.”
Gillette’s approach has engendered intrigue — and some discomfort — among cultural observers.
The ad reflects “changes in the way we view masculinity and femininity,” said Scott Lukas, an anthropology professor who maintains the Gender Ads Project, a website devoted to analyzing gender images. It plays into notions of male fastidiousness, he said, invoking the contemporary term “metrosexuality.” “It’s the ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ effect,” Lukas said. “The idea is that men can care about their appearance in ways that weren’t as accepted before. There isn’t as much cultural sensitivity against that.”
Even so, the ad plays off some stereotypes and traditions, he said. “The underlying message is that men are slobs, men are grotesque, men have hairy backs, and they need women to civilize them,” he said.
Jean Kilbourne, the creator of a film series called “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women,” said the ad is unusual because “it turns the tables by having women doing the objectifying” of the opposite sex. “But I’m not sure that makes it any better. The women are pretty objectified, anyway.”
Kilbourne noted that Upton and the two other women in the commercial (models Genesis Rodriguez and Hannah Simone) barely get to express themselves; they mainly nod in agreement with statements attributed to them by a man, the narrator. “I guess this was intended to soften them,” she said. “It would seem brazen and unseemly” for the women to express their preferences directly, without “a male voice of authority” to approve of them.
What’s more, when it comes to cultural attitudes toward grooming, men and women will never be equal, said Kilbourne, the author of “Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel.”
“A rich, hairy man will never have a problem,” she said. “For women, (grooming is) a requirement. No matter what else women do or accomplish, perfect grooming has to go along with it. For men … it’s an option,” or in Gillette’s case, a sexual fantasy.
But Bob Garfield, the former critic at Advertising Age magazine, said the Gillette ad is an equal-opportunity offender.
“What’s bad for the goose is bad for the gander,” said Garfield, the author of “Can’t Buy Me Like,” a recent book about social-media marketing. “But in a weird way, I welcome this particular adver-trocity. It is so repugnant that hitherto oblivious men will finally understand what it feels like to be told you aren’t good enough, or attractive enough, or sexy enough the way you are.”
Gillette won’t talk in detail about consumer reaction to its campaign. But its actions suggest Garfield may be on the right track. Come fall, the pouty supermodels will be gone. New ads for the body razor will feature those old macho standbys — NFL players.