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A decade or so back, perpetually youthful Dick Clark raised a few eyebrows when he stamped his name on a line of male facial-care products. It seemed a curio not just because Clark had already lapsed into cultural irrelevance but also because men typically don't take to primping and grooming products, at least beyond shaving gear or the Grecian Formula one might find in Dad's or Grandpa's medicine cabinet.

Since the dawn of the consumer era, there has been a grand chasm between the sexes in terms of daily regimens. Women have been disproportionately targeted and brainwashed as to the need for products to spackle the unsightly holes in their personal aesthetic. With massive fiscal disparity, they have paid out millions of dollars to smooth, paint, condition, gloss, mask and perfume themselves — learning how to delineate between “volumizing� conditioners and “botanical� ingredients along the way — whereas guys, if anything, kidded themselves that Polo was expensive enough to make them smell good. Well, you've come a long way, buddy, because the health and beauty aids (HBA) business is betting you're just as vain as your female counterpart, and it's probably right.

In the past six months, HBA marketers have flooded airwaves, magazines and Web pages with a rash of new products “just for men� — more specifically, for guys from adolescence to age 34. With winking humor and more innuendo than a flight of beer commercials, marketers of such staid brands as Nivea, Blistex and Old Spice have attempted to inject some testosterone into their image, while such new brands as Maxim Hair Color for Men and Axe deodorant body spray (a hybrid deodorant and fragrance) have pushed men's toiletries into whole new categories. All are banking on a new generation of guys who, apparently, have eschewed the more austere, manly manhood of yore for more mirror time, ostensibly in the hope of attracting women.

“If there were only guys on this planet, male grooming products wouldn't exist,� says Diggi Tompson, North American brand director for Unilever's Axe. “It was always amusing to look to the deodorant category. For years, all these ads were saying was: This one works for 12 hours, this one for 18, this one for 36. But the wrong conversation was being had. We asked, ‘Why are men using these products in the first place?’ Girls.�

A tenor of this new wave of ads is a zanier, hyperbolic twist on the more general predilections of the advertising industry to sell sex. In the Axe TV spots, a young woman demonstrates the relatively new body spray concept on a mannequin, which ends up arousing her to various comic effects, such as her boyfriend storming onto the set and punching the mannequin's head off (“Roger! We were just talking!�). Ads for Combe, Inc.-licensed Maxim hair color, true to its namesake magazine's horndog image, basically proffer the product as an aphrodisiac, showing guys “getting ahead� at work by getting hit on by particularly hot female co-workers. Even the king of ad stodge, Procter & Gamble, hawks its body spray extension of Old Spice with uncharacteristic swagger. One ad features a strutting mailroom guy hot to get to his final delivery — the executive vice president's office. “Nice package,� the vixenish evp says, as the camera shoots the guy from between her shapely legs.

All of this collectively begs the question: Are guys of this generation just hornier than previous ones? To read Maxim, its even dumber brother publication Stuff or its competitor FHM, it would seem profoundly so, but this has also become a case of media programming the message.

The ascent of these publications in the past half decade has helped define the notion of the young male “lifestyle� in the same way that women's service, fashion and teen magazines have programmed females to primp for 50 years or more. Maxim's circulation base stands at around 2.5 million, Stuff's at 1.1 million, and each is still growing amid a moribund ad market and a slow, grinding erosion of print media in general. Where once the likes of Sassy, Seventeen and Cosmo were the province of such groupthink fluff as dating tips, love quizzes and PR product placements masked as “what's hot� reviews, the new boys' books have proven that males ages 14 to 34 can be just as susceptible.

“For all these years, women had these magazines that covered relationships, fashion, horoscopes, celebrities, etcetera. But what did guys have? Sports,� says Tompson. “These [new] magazines provide a forum that says, ‘OK, guys, it's OK to talk about this kind of thing.’�

Indeed, as the top Maxim licensing exec sees it, this new male predilection for primping represents a sort of liberation for guys. They have shrugged off the stoic complacency of their fathers to embrace new possibilities in their personal aesthetics, such as hair color for a fun twist, not just to “mask the gray.� “I don't know if ‘vain’ is the word — guys are more conscious of their appearance, and there's a difference between the two,� says Barry Pincus, Maxim's manager of brand development. “In a way they're less vain, not worried about being different, but more adaptable. It's really a sign of maturity to some degree. Guys are more willing to experiment, more willing to take some risks, in a more casual way.�

Whether they're taking enough risks to buoy this spate of new products is not a simple drop kick. Between October 1999 and September 2000, American males used a mean of 3.4 toiletry products in their daily regimen, according to Chicago-based Mintel International Group. After moderate growth throughout the 1990s, men's toiletries alone accounted for just over $4 billion of the $33.5 billion personal care products market in 2001, according to Datamonitor.

As for younger guys, there does seem to be a bent. To look at Mintel's 1999-2000 data, men of all ages tend to use standard products — such as deodorants, shaving creams and gels — at about the same rates. In terms of hair styling products, however, younger segments showed much more activity, even before the onslaught of new products: 36 percent of guys 18 to 24 used hair gels, mousses and the like; 34 percent of guys 25 to 34 used them; and, surprisingly, 11 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds used hair-coloring products, 6 percent more than 24- to 34-year-olds and even more than the 7 percent of gray-fleeing 45- to 54-year-olds.

So we can see the younger generation's disproportionate openness to trial and error in its personal presentation. Further, the growth of Maxim magazine, et al., indicates, among other things, that this young group is seeking products that address grooming directly, not as a bubble-market segment on such broader male-skewing publications as Esquire, Playboy or Sports Illustrated. Just so, newer, fresher voices — like that of Axe — are going to resonate deeper with the market than, say, that of Nivea for Men, which still bears the feminine Nivea name. And just so, most of these new products, from Blistex's male-only formula to P&G's Old Spice body spray, appeared on the shelves in straight, sleek, black packaging — the polar extreme of the florals and pastels that one typically associates with women's products.

This “just for me� factor outwardly seems to fit the general self-involvement the beauty business depends on. Entrants into the market, however, should pay heed to Unilever's model and tread lightheartedly, as the same notion bespeaks a fine line they need to follow between “male grooming� and “HBA.� It took decades of programming to convince women they might be, as L'Oréal's narcissism-friendly tag line went, “worth it.� Try that with a guy, and you'll still just get funny looks.

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