5 words vs 34 words (or “Cultural Observations From The Shower”)
While in the shower, I noticed something. It was something about our culture and marketing and messaging (a field I tend to spend some time in).
If you’re married or for some other reason share a bathroom with someone of the opposite sex, you most likely have a plethora (or at the very least, more than one) of beauty products in the shower. During the most normal aspect of the daily routine I found my self thinking about two of the bottles on the bar serving as a shelf (pictured above).
To the left, a bottle targeted for men. A bottle of simply 5 words on its front side: a brand name (Axe), a product name (Phoenix); and a product identifier (“Revitalizing Shower Gel”).
To the right, a bottle targeted to women. A bottle with considerably more words — 34 to be exact (including an “a” and a “&” — chill, grammarians).
After a brief moment, this quickly became more than an aesthetic-based design observation. It became a bigger realization at something that could be looked at with casual dismissal of absurdity (“wow, that’s a lot of words”) or a deeper reflection of a dangerous precedent of how we communicate in culturally harmful ways. With my wife and I having two kids on the cusp of their formative teenage years, I couldn’t help but to fixate on the way men and women are communicated to.
Let’s go back and start with the product aimed at men. An axe is one of the more manly, dangerous, tools in the shed. Axe is short and a good brand name for products aimed at men. Then there’s the word “PHOENIX”, either named after a city or the mythical fire bird (and fire birds are universally awesome). What this has to do with hair/body wash, I don’t know, but let’s move on. When we finally arrive at the only adjective on the label, “REVITALIZING”, it is so minimal and coupled with the actual described product — “SHOWER GEL”, it comes across authentic, direct, and to the point. All good attributes.
The reality is, most men use anything that lathers or bubbles up and if a bottle only said “Stuff That Bubbles Up” on it — or even just “Bubbles” on it, we’d probably be fine.
As I look at the bottle targeted to women though, I notice an abundance of words. An abundance of adjectives. But why were they there, why these? The thing is, words have meaning. Words build and reinforce ideas. Without a doubt words on this bottle were all carefully selected, but let’s look at them and consider what they communicate:
It is simply the name, it gets a pass. Actually, it sounds fancy — European even — so good job. (Actually, after looking more closely, the product claims it’s from Connecticut, so there’s that.)
USED BY PROFESSIONALS:
The tagline locked up in their logo. You need to know this is what the pros use, because you want what they use. Yes, it says it can be trusted, but it also an aspect about it that says your hair needs professional grade help.
In case you missed that this is what the professionals use, you’re reminded that they are experts. You are not.
The word “perfect” here pushes an idea of something that is admirably desirable yet ultimately unobtainable. Then the playful, prefix-optional use of “done” tries to be simultaneously put together (all done up) and flirty when read as undone (oh-la-la). Women are to be both non-trashy and sexy — and perfect at both.
New has to be good, right? Because old is bad. We can’t have people — well, women at least — getting old, right Carrie Fisher/Princess Leia?
The perfect start for a flowing, wavy look:
Again we see the word ‘perfect’ used to emphasize a very high bar has been set. Coupled with this is the word ‘start’ which could be a ploy simply to sell additional products but it also sends the message to women that whatever you do with your hair on its journey to a perfect condition with waviness and flowing appeal, it’s gonna be a multi-step process. And remember, you’re going for perfection.
With Sea Kelp Extract + Silicone Free:
I’m sure it exists and I’m trying not to rabbit-hole you too much, but I gotta believe one of the reasons Al Gore created the Internet was so people can have an ongoing list of crazy things people add to beauty products. Sea kelp surely has a place on that list of fads.
Then we have the Silicone Free part. This is something so important they reference it twice. I’m not sure if it makes the product better or if someone in Connecticut hates silicone or if it’s simply an environmental plug, but I am certain of these two things: I have to pay taxes, and there is NO silicone in this product.
Weightless Silicone-Free Shampoo:
There are so many ways women are told to be thin, and on this product there is a subtle reminder of this. Trust me, I get that hair can be ‘weightless’ to describe a condition where it is showing fullness and freedom, but for someone already wrestling with body image, this is another shot.
Also, silicone is still bad, and this product doesn’t have any.
Finally, towards the bottom of the bottle, we what kind of product this actually is — ah, it’s shampoo. Talk about burying the lead.
System for flowing body & texture:
Much like ‘start’ and ‘professional’ above (and below for good measure) the word ‘system’ implies the amount of work it takes you to get to perfection — which ‘flowing body and texture’ are parts of.
A fine closing remainder of ideas reinforced from the top of the bottle, through the middle, now sits on the bottom of the bottle. You need and should want professional help with your hair. This is the level of quality you need.
Wow. That was exhausting. Thirty four words. And what was the end result? Clean hair and subtly questioned (or fragilely-reinforced) confidence?
Words have the power to build–and then reinforce–ideas. As I consider my wife and also my daughter, I wonder the message they take away from this. My wife doesn’t appear to have a strong, unwavering brand loyalty for hair products so I am guessing this bottle was probably bought as it was on sale (and paired with conditioner, which is essentially magic sauce for your hair, and I say this being the one with short hair in our home, where it’s advised that I don’t need it…but man, conditioner is incredible). I understand there is a desire to be beautiful and there is a self-confidence that comes form when one feels beautiful. How strongly do we have to perpetuate this idea though? Doesn’t thirty four words seem excessive?
I write this post not proposing answers, but identifying awareness to all the messaging — subtle and direct — that we see in simple things we use every day. Let us be aware so we can not be so consumed by doubts originated by bloated advertising-pushed descriptions on products of the things we need.