In the changing world of advertising, some things don’t change: Babies are cute, sex sells, and men do not feel comfortable buying toiletries. The problem of how to sell tubes of goo to “average guys” (read: straight ones) has been a problem for brands for decades—whether it’s Bristol-Myers hawking Vitalis hair tonic in 1956 or Avon selling moisturizers today. Then, as now, brands have reached for the same solution: the male celebrity endorser. But that’s the easy part. The real decision is: Who?
Bristol-Myers had been making Vitalis (with its mysterious “greaseless grooming discovery V7”) for barbershops since the early 1900s. But in 1938, it took the direct-to-public approach. Early ads featured cartoon men, but it took the coming of TV impresario Arthur Godfrey to make the real connection. Wholesome, sincere, and friendly, “the old redhead” was the perfect pitchman. But this was still the ‘50s, notes celebrity-endorsement expert David Reeder, of Los Angeles-based personality licensing company GreenLight. Women might have primped and preened, but men treated their hair much like the shrubs in the front yard. “Godfrey was just about taking care of your problem hair,” Reeder observes. “Put the stuff in, comb it, and get out the door.”
By the time Avon’s men products came around, gender-role strictures had loosened, and it was OK to appeal to men’s vanity. In the contemporary ad opposite, Derek Jeter is pitching a collection of products, not just a single one. But the choice of the endorser (a “real” man) and the deliberative dudespeak (“protect your magnificent mug”) suggests that, even after 50+ years, making the sale still depends on establishing the same unstated social contract: “The choice of Jeter, a sports figure, gives men permission to use these products,” Reeder says. “Men think, ‘If it’s OK for him to do it, then it’s OK for me, too.’”
Incidentally, Vitalis (now owned by Clairol) is still selling, and it’s still got V7 in it. Whatever that is.