Perspective: Taking It Off the Chin

Ads for electric shavers used to be long, technical treatises. Then came manscaping

Headshot of Robert Klara

The practice of men shaving hair off their faces became de rigueur grooming starting with Alexander the Great—or so many historians agree. Those who don’t can at least agree on this: Shaving has been a tedious ritual that men have pretty much disliked ever since. In the 20th century, numerous inventions emerged as palliatives, including the disposable razor (1904), foam shaving cream (1925) and the electric shaver (1937). By the time the Remington ad on the right appeared in 1963, electric shavers had been popular for a generation. And, as the Gillette ad opposite shows, they’re making quite the comeback.

But this pair of ads shows far more than the resurgence of an early 20th century men’s hygiene product. It also illustrates how a brand can turn an obligatory chore into a bona fide status activity simply by adjusting the commodity that’s being sold. “The first ad is all about product reliability,” observed John Parham, president of branding agency Parham Santana. “But the second focuses on the performer.” Is there really much of a difference? Keep reading.

In 1939, Remington used the New York World’s Fair to unveil its Close Shaver, a potato-sized device that used tiny electric blades to nip off whiskers—no water, no soap needed. And lo, before the bathroom mirrors of America, a revolution was born. Men called it “dry shaving.” In the coming years, Remington improved its product by adding more blades—two heads, then four. Finally, in 1960, it went cordless with a model called the Lektronic.

But while the ad on this page shows Lektronic’s product attributes well enough, that’s all it shows: five break-apart schematics and 175 words devoted to mechanical components like comb rollers and rechargeable energy cells. Yawn. “That Remington shaver is about as sexy as your grandmother’s toaster,” Parham said, adding that the Mt. Rushmore-sized chin is nerdier still. “By 1962, Andy Warhol had already taught us that you don’t exist unless you’re somebody. So why do they have Mr. Chin—an anonymous chin—in here?” The ad, Parham said, isn’t a failure so much as unnecessary self-restriction. Remington’s sole focus on mechanical performance not only confines the consumer’s thinking to gears and sprockets, but it also suggests that facial hair is a categorically bad thing that requires complete expunging.

In 49 more years, competitor Gillette would demonstrate how limited such thinking was. Gillette had already made its name in wet shaving, but when the brand decided to introduce an electric shaver earlier this year, its marketers made a critical decision. Instead of advertising the new shaver, they’d advertise its ability to create a new you. By spotlighting a celebrity who’s proud of his goatee, the “Masters of Style” ad frees the electric shaver from its traditional role as a facial weed whacker and celebrates the ritual of “manscaping” instead: how sculpting your facial hair infuses you with swagger and sex appeal. As Parham puts it: “When I see this ad, I think, ‘I can become a master of style, too! I can be somebody!’”

Now, did anyone look at Mr. Chin in 1963 and think that? Doubt it.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.