The Middlebrow

The Gillette Man

A close shave for a great American.

Two weeks ago, Procter & Gamble announced that it had purchased Gillette, manufacturer of the world’s best-selling line of men’s razors, for $57 billion. With the sale, the parent company also gained custody of one of TV’s most enduring icons: the Gillette man. Through dozens of commercials, we have gleaned a few immutable truths about the sculpted spokesmodel. For instance, he shows a great affinity for two-handed cheek massage. He prefers to date women who stroll up behind him with their midriffs wrapped in towels. He always shaves after he styles his hair, which, incidentally, is an unwavering shade of light brown. For a playboy, the Gillette man has genuine heart. In recent ads, he’s been seen sharing meaningful grooming moments with his father and tending lovingly to his infant son.

But the Gillette man harbors a dirty little secret. His “best a man can get” boast is nothing but a brave facade. Shaving is his great humiliation—the man at his very worst. He dreads gruesome shaving injuries: jagged flesh cuts and red bumps that sprout up at his neckline. He vows to shave more slowly and precisely, but he continues to slather on foaming gel and slice his blade carelessly against the grain. The Gillette man’s genius is to somehow dignify these vulnerabilities and then banish them with a splash of machismo.

The Gillette man derives his swagger from the company’s founder, King Camp Gillette, who began tinkering with men’s razors in 1895. King Gillette was a turn-of-century archetype: half visionary, half crank. An unapologetic utopian—he wanted the entire American population to move to a bustling city on the shores of Lake Ontario—Gillette envisioned a revolution in shaving. He noticed that men had to constantly sharpen their razors, which would dull after only a few uses. So he conceived of a line of cheap, disposable razor blades that could be purchased in bulk and discarded before they ever needed sharpening. After a shaky start, the Gillette Safety Razor Co. grew into an iconic American brand and helped usher in the age of disposable goods. The wrapping around each blade contained King Gillette’s likeness, printed, as Fortune Small Business magazine noted, in the color of money. During World War I, King Gillette sold shavers to the U.S. government, enlisting thousands upon thousands of soldiers as lifelong customers.

Decades after King Gillette’s death in 1932, the public face of the company assumed the visage of the Gillette man. At first, the Gillette man was a strapping guy-next-door, obsessed with self-betterment and team sports. His slogan was “Look sharp! Feel sharp! Be sharp!” (“The best a man can get” wouldn’t appear until 1989.) The company lent its name to every sporting venture it could find, from the 1939 World Series to the New England Patriots’ new stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Occasionally, the Gillette pitchmen were real athletes like Muhammad Ali or David Beckham, who provided aspirational examples of the masculine ideal.

The Gillette man should have become an iconic figure of the Me Decade. Instead, the 1980s found him at his lowest ebb. The company was rocked by three hostile takeover bids from Revlon’s Ron Perelman. The Gillette business model, which was built around manufacturing high-quality razors, was rendered obsolete by the appearance of Bic’s new disposable razors, which allowed you to throw away both the razor and the blade. As if to prove that art must imitate life, even the Gillette man’s commercials were great embarrassments. In a 1983 ad, the Gillette man was depicted as the tiny weakling on a basketball court full of giants; his shaver, he said, helped him even the odds. The previous year, the Gillette man was rendered to look like Anthony Michael Hall, wearing a pinstriped bathrobe and yelping, “I like it!” after every razor stroke.

He recovered some of his dignity in 1990, when Gillette moved the market away from disposable razors, unveiling the Sensor and then, eight years later, its most iconic razor, the Mach 3. (The latter model was launched with a $300 million ad campaign—big money for the Gillette man.) As James Surowiecki reported in TheNew Yorker, the plating of the Mach 3 was modeled after the shape-shifting villain in Terminator 2, and the razor’s unveiling lent the Gillette man a Schwarzeneggerian swagger. He once again became a virile playboy. He dumped the bathrobe for the sculpted, shirtless look and took up extreme sports like mountain-climbing. In a commercial that ran during the 2004 Super Bowl, the Gillette man attempted to describe his Weltanschauung: “You know the feelin’. Every guy’s had it. You’re unbeatable. Unstoppable. You got that walkin’-on-water feelin’. … And once you’ve had the feelin’, you want it back. There’s nothin’ like it. It’s the best. … Every move is smooth. Every word is cool. Yeah. I never want to lose that feelin’. It’s the best, man.”

Beneath the macho bluster, though, the Gillette man was embracing a 1990s ideal of manhood. Gillette wanted to move beyond sports iconography and depict the best moments in a man’s life—marriage, children, even religion. Gillette ads began to feature father-son fishing trips and joyous family weddings. The 2004 Super Bowl ad contains a tender, almost heavenly image. Amid the shots of astronauts and soccer players, the viewer suddenly notices an ethereal white light. Why, it’s an angel. And not the Gillette man’s girlfriend, either. A real, honest-to-goodness angel, come to bless his daily grooming rituals. This revealed an intriguing and heretofore unknown side of the Gillette man. Was he an enthusiastic Christian? A fan of Tony Kushner?

Lately, the Gillette man has embraced another masculine ideal: trading up. The Gillette company has mastered the art of releasing a new, more innovative razor every few years, whether humanity needs it or not. The Atra became the Atra Plus. The Sensor yielded to the SensorExcel. After six years of market dominance, the excellent Mach 3 gave way to the M3 Power, a razor that requires an AAA battery to “micro-pulse” hairs into an upright and locked position. The unveiling of a Gillette razor has become as routine as the release of a new model sports car. A financial analyst told the Boston Globe that Gillette’s strategy was “not revolutionary, it’s evolutionary.”

The Procter & Gamble sale may pose a threat to the Gillette man. It’s a shotgun wedding of the grooming categories. Just as Gillette dominates men’s shaving products, Procter & Gamble provides the top toiletry brands for women: Tampax, Olay, Cover Girl, and Max Factor. Will P&G’s femininity nag the machismo out of the Gillette man? You know the feelin’. Every guy’s had it. First you’re in love. Smitten. But then you’re married. Trapped. You’ve got that stuck-in-jail feelin’. It’s the worst, man. The worst.