Barbara Lippert’s Critique: The Mane Man

His voice cuts through the clutter like Barbra Strei-sand’s nails on a blackboard. He hectors, he rants, he judges. He’s actor and stand-up comedian Mario Cantone, aka Charlotte’s hilarious, attitudinal gay best friend on Sex and the City. While the BFF-phenom of fabulous urban single gals and their fabulous, advice-giving gay male sidekicks has dominated TV for years, it took this lively new Sunsilk campaign from JWT to introduce the concept to advertising.

“Girls and their hair. Talk about problems!” Cantone says, welcoming us to the battlefield. The scene is an open-air market populated by lots of good-looking young actresses, all the better for the unseen maestro to survey the damage. “Sister, your hair’s so poofy you could use it as an airbag!” We watch as this particular sister looks at her reflection in a store window, and tries to pat the wayward strands down. “I thought I’d need pay-per-view to see groping like that! Hello, Blue!” He’s not talking about the color of his material, by the way, but instead is promoting the Blue version of Sunsilk for unwanted poof.

In another spot, he spots a blonde and says, “Flat, flat, flat!” She bends her head down, a gravity-defying plunge that those of us with straight hair have been taught to make in an attempt to give the ‘do more body. “That shake’s good for nothing unless you’re getting paid!” Cantone says. “Yellow!”

Aside from everything else going on in the spots, the color-coding of the various products is cleverly integrated into the campaign. We effortlessly learn that Pink is for dry, Green is for frizzy, etc. And if we didn’t get it the first time, in the end, the women walk around with the appropriately colored dots over their heads, which looks cool and draws attention to the fact that everyone has her own particular (and sometimes festive) hair cross to bear.

Certainly, the work brings long overdue freshness and irreverence to the category–I don’t remember a single funny shampoo campaign in history. (Unless you consider fake orgasms for Herbal Essences’ “organics” comedy gold. Um, I don’t.) And enough already with the serious business of the hair shaft and the lab coats. I’ve never understood how Garnier uses Sarah Jessica Parker, the queen of Sex and the City, in a spot that removes any semblance of Carrie. On the show, her often wild and curly, dirty blonde hair had a personality(and commanding presence) of its own. In the Garnier spot, neither SJP nor Carrie is recognizable—just a person with her hair all brown and behaved. Lobotomy sold separately? That said, I like the overall concept but have some trouble with particular lines in this Sunsilk campaign.

In the end, there’s a difference between spending the day laughing with your gay male friend (the one who can tell you anything because there’s no ulterior sexual motive, but can still offer a male perspective) and watching strangers voyeuristically to make fun of them. This is more like a “yo mama” insult session.

Some of the jokes are even offensive to the whole notion of single, carefree womanhood, like the line Cantone offers to a split-end picker. “What do you think you’re gonna find in there? A husband?” I know the culture has gotten hypersexualized, and the campaign is aimed at twentysomethings, but some are more don’t-go-there raunchy than funny. One postcard shows the front of a G-string with “My hair’s so frizzy I should give it a Brazilian” printed on the little triangle. Another one, printed on a blue bra (in the bar version, the cups are 3-D and light up) is “My hair’s so poofy, I should stuff my bra with it.” Ew—I really don’t know any woman who would mix hair and bra jokes like that—too gross.

Perhaps some of these suffer from the Sex and the City (the early years) syndrome—when gay writers put their own brand of conversation into the mouths of straight women. (Or, in the case of Samantha, just transferred the entire sensibility directly onto the other gender.) More importantly, do women really need another critical voice in our heads, making fun of our hair? And another thing: while these are not classic hair models (thankfully, the spots dispense with the usual sweeping-curtain-of- perfect-hair- shot, a lot of the hair isn’t nearly bad enough. In fact, I thought the hair on the “flat, flat, flat” blonde looked great.

Cinema ads take the color-coding concept to an abstract, animated place, which is inviting. One spot shows green boots and a woman cracking a whip (to get control of the hair) that’s really simple, graphic and entertaining. Another has a poodle explode, “Pop that poof!” But the execution with the yellow blow-up doll is unfortunate. What woman wants to be compared to a blow-up doll? Hello, code red!

I like everything on the Web site, truly the home of homo-hairoticism. It offers a whole new set of gay guy friends: Ethan Mechare, Micah McCain and Robbie Laughlin, who were hired to blog, answer questions, write a column for the Star and appear on TV. They’re amusing warm and fuzzy types who offer advice on everything. In one of his posts, Micah says, “Brown is the new blonde.”

Despite all, one thing this campaign proves is that personality will always be the new black.