How Brands Use the Ritual of Shaving to Sell Everything

From condensed milk to life insurance

Headshot of Robert Klara

If you're a postpubescent North American male and reading these words right now, there’s a good chance that you shaved your whiskers off this morning. Chances are, too, that you’ve heard some of the traditional reasons why you bothered: that most women prefer it, that most employers prefer it, that it makes a guy look younger. And in case these aren’t good enough reasons to pick up a razor, consider the study that found a defendant accused of a felony was more likely to be convicted by a jury if he wore a beard. Things weren’t always this way, of course. For much of the 19th century, society regarded beards as signifiers of authority and success. But Gillette’s introduction of the disposable razor in 1906 not only made shaving easier, but it also made it socially preferable. By 1947, only one in 10 guys still had beards. Today, that statistic still pretty much holds.

That the morning shave has since become a fixture in men’s lives goes without saying. But as the ads here show, that male ritual has also become a cornerstone of advertising, too—even for brands that have nothing whatsoever to do with the act of shaving. From Carnation condensed milk in 1942 to New York Life insurance today, brands have long co-opted the familiar image of a guy applying a glinting steel razor to his chin. What’s up with that?

“What this kind of advertising did was establish shaving as a modern rite—a signifier of manliness and paternalism,” said Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. By associating a product with a culturally sanctioned act, Miller said, “these ads are trying to elevate their brands.”

And they’re not alone. For decades, advertisers have transformed shaving from simple hygienic ritual to a veritable proclamation of everything that’s wholesome and good about America. A 1936 ad for Lifebuoy showed a guy getting a promotion after shaving. Throughout the 1940s, Barbarsol ads portrayed clean-shaven men pursued and kissed by beautiful women. And in 1981, an ad for BVD gave us “The Great American Male,” a dude wearing briefs and a cowboy hat—and shaving. Norman Rockwell might be best known for his 1943 painting of grandma putting the Thanksgiving turkey on the table, but in 1919, he painted a young man sitting on a barrel and having his first shave.

Little wonder, then, that marketers have devised so many variations of the (lathered) man in the mirror in hopes of triggering associations of strength, cleanliness and responsibility. “All advertisers want to insert their products into the heart of our culture and our family lives,” Miller added. “It’s a way to naturalize the product.”

So it is. And just in case the viewer doesn’t get it, both of these advertisers have added the ideal prop for the man who’s having a shave: a kid gazing up in admiration.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.