Original blog post written collaboratively for Ideen LLC

August 4, 2016

This week, Griffin (GV) and Hilary (HA) visited the personal care aisles of a local grocery store and a Target to see how things like shampoo, moisturizer, and shaving products are physically presented to shoppers. Next time, they’ll take a look at commercials and ads to see how the same products are sold.

What was the first thing you noticed?

GV: Both stores had two separate sections, one for beauty products and one for men’s beauty products. It’s something I’ve definitely observed before, since I primarily shop in the latter section, but it’s never been something I’ve given significant thought to.

HA: Men’s body wash and moisturizer are all in black, gray, or dark blue bottles with few distinguishing features between items with different ingredients or purposes (such as body wash for sensitive skin versus the same product for dry skin). Women’s products, on the other hand, come in containers with more distinct color differences based upon what it contains or does (e.g., green if it contains aloe, pink for sensitive skin, blue for hydrating, etc.).

Was there anything strange about how the products were organized on the shelves?

GV: Ladies’ products were all grouped by purpose, and then brand (like the Pantene was on the shampoo aisle, and all Pantene products were grouped together). Men’s products were organized by brand, but shelved as their own category (all Old Spice products, from deodorant to pomade to bodywash, were grouped together in one place).

Oddly, men’s products could be found in both the regular “beauty products” aisle and the “men’s” products aisle, I’m assuming for guys who felt uncomfortable shopping for shampoo in the “beauty” aisle. Something I’ll admit I’m guilty of.

HA: In the shaving aisle of the grocery store, there were women’s shaving cream and razors and men’s shaving cream and razors, but there were also men’s hair care products, moisturizer, and acne treatments. Griffin explained to me that while women know to seek out these other products in their dedicated aisles, men pretty much gravitate to the shaving aisle because they perceive shaving products as a necessity, and these other products are placed here to remind men that they have other skin care needs that should be addressed. This, to me, seems like the store is rewarding men’s fear of looking like they care about their appearance.

Does the way these products are organized reinforce any gender roles or stereotypes?

GV: Absolutely, but in a very weird way. Products are marketed to women seemingly on the understanding that women are going to buy beauty/hygiene products, so the packaging is more concerned with telling the consumer what’s in the product, or what the product is supposed to do. Shampoos and conditioners have entire herb gardens listed on their labels so consumers know exactly what they’re getting and what it’s going to do for them.

Products are marketed to men on the understanding that they aren’t going to buy anything. Every package has to be either a bright, arresting color (Old Spice’s signature red, Head and Shoulders’ jewel-tone blue), or have an exciting, Hemingway-esque logo on the front (Kiehl’s biplane, Old Spice’s sailboat … because a bright red label wasn’t enough of a draw), to catch the eye. Most products we saw had some kind of text or legend on them (again, Old Spice is leading the pack here) to explain what emotional and social purpose the product would fulfill in the consumer’s life. We saw shampoo bottles shaped like flasks, cologne bottles shaped like skulls, shaving cream with pine trees and labels in all-caps. Rarely any word about what’s in the product, unless the ingredients include sports, extremeness, or exciting wild animal motifs.

HA: Something Griffin and I discussed a lot while we were browsing was the apparent message that guys aren’t supposed to care about their outward appearance, which is exemplified perfectly in the ubiquity of the 2-in-1 or 3-in-1 shower products in the men’s section of the aisle. This stuff purports to be a shampoo, conditioner, and body wash all in one, and one bottle we found even said it could serve as shaving gel. (How?? That sounds like it wouldn’t work well at all.) If the number of bottles in your shower is directly proportional to your concern with your appearance, then having one bottle for all of your hygiene needs satisfies your masculine prerogative to stay clean with as little perceived effort as possible.

Women, on the other hand, are expected to care very much about how we look and smell, so the assumption appears to be that we’re going to be more proactive in seeking out products to satisfy all of our beauty and hygiene needs.

Did you see anything today that will change the way you will shop for these products going forward?

GV: I’m not sure how to answer this one. I’m probably not going to start shopping in the ladies’ section, but I’m definitely more conscious of how weird it is to have separate “men’s” and “everyone else’s” sections. I understand it; on a logical level I know it’s weird to be uncomfortable shopping outside the “men’s” section, but I know I’ve had instances of quiet embarrassment when I’ve had to buy sensitive skin soap. There’s some deeply ingrained impulse to feel embarrassed about caring too much about how I look or what I use to get clean.

Hilary raised a point that hygiene/personal care products are unusual in that the default consumer is intended to be women, and the “specialized” products are specifically for men. Men have their own section of men-specific products so that they don’t even have to set foot in the “beauty” section if they don’t want to. I can’t decide if that feels like I’m being coddled or condescended to.

HA: I already buy Old Spice deodorant for myself; I find that it works better than equivalent products marketed to women and it’s a better value (women’s deodorant comes in smaller containers and contains more perfume than antiperspirant, in my experience). Since I already go to the shampoo/soap/moisturizer aisle for the products I use, I don’t see myself deliberately going to the men’s aisle for a smaller selection of products. However, hearing Griffin’s point about feeling embarrassed when buying personal care items, I realized that I’ve never felt weird about going to the checkout line with just a bottle of dandruff shampoo or soap or deodorant. If these items are something everyone needs, why is it women seem to be more comfortable purchasing them than men?