The Scent of A Man

The subtlety of previous manly scents has been replaced with an overt stench: the rank smell of chemical machismo.

Photo by Sandy Huffaker - New York Times - Redux

In the arena of male toiletries, scents can be divided into three categories: cologne, aftershave and deodorant. Cologne is a perfume and is used solely for reasons of beautification. Aftershave is a scent that may contain an antiseptic agent and is to be used after a man shaves. Deodorant, the most common of male scent products, is applied to mask body odor. Aftershave was originally sold on its benefits – it gave you a smooth shave and a scent that made you smell like a man should smell. Deodorant, on the other hand, provided protection from the body’s natural tendency toward unsightly stains and undesired odors.

But starting in the late 60s, marketers discovered that it was far more effective to sell aftershave to men vis-à-vis their relations with women: If you use Brand X aftershave, women will like you. Not only that, they will have sex with you … Lots of it.

Deodorant, however, continued to be sold on the basis of “protection” — if you don’t use deodorant, you will fall victim to perspiration and will consequently be viewed as a degenerate by your contemporaries. Up to the 90s, most of the ads for deodorant featured a succession of shots with people raising their arms to reveal either a disgusting wet stain or a socially commendable dry underarm, illustrating the confidence enjoyed by those who used deodorant versus the embarrassment of the barbarian hordes who don’t.

They were simple times. To ensure that you got laid, you used aftershave. To maintain confidence in the workplace and on the sports field, you used deodorant. A smooth, scented face peels off the panties and a dry, crisp underarm ensures success.

But at the turn of the century, the situation became more complicated. When the idea of “metrosexuality” gained momentum, toiletry marketers seized upon the gender shift as an opportunity to expand their role in engineering the male identity, as they had done so well with women for decades. The toiletry industry exploded and the number of scents in the young male’s cabinet grew exponentially.

The man of yore was basic, even elemental. He worked, played sports and made love to women. The new man of the 21st century, however, is infinitely complex. He shops, plucks his eyebrows, gets $60 haircuts and requires a far more diverse selection of scented products in order to achieve the status of “man.”

The industry standards of Old Spice and Right Guard were replaced with Axe. Rather than champion a man’s ability to achieve success in the workplace and the bedroom, Axe brought in a new school of thought toward male marketing: treat them like women, prey on their insecurities.

The 20th-century man’s aftershave reflected his masculinity, but Axe is that masculinity. You cannot achieve macho without buying all of their available products: not just aftershave and deodorant but also shower gel, skin care, one-off pocket-sized body shots, scrub tools, hair gel and so forth.

The logic of the “smooth, clean shaven face” was extended to the entire body, allowing the toiletry industry — Unilever in Axe’s case — to turn every part of the male physiology into real estate for their products. The subtlety of previous manly scents has been replaced with an overt stench: the rank smell of chemical machismo.

It’s completely psychological – your typical Madison Avenue plot to further commodify the human identity. What’s troublesome for the modern man is that the scent product no longer reflects his manhood … It has become the source.

—Douglas Haddow