Did Gillette and Mad Men Kill the Beard?
Of course, no single person killed the beard. The transition from beards to a clean-shaven face lasted decades and was more than the sum of its parts...
Of course, no single person killed the beard. The transition from beards to a clean-shaven face lasted decades and was more than the sum of its parts. Yet, when we think about how we got here – a culture that is just now remembering that hirsute men shouldn’t be ashamed of their face sweaters – one suspect rises to the top: Gillette and its cadre of clean shaven, Madison Avenue ad men.
Gillette, as we know it today, doesn’t much resemble the Gillette Safety Razor Company from the turn of the century. Back in 1901, King C. Gillette launched his company on a new business model. He began to sell razors along with disposable razor steel blades. Within thirteen years, Gillette Safety Razor Company was selling millions of disposable razor steel blades along with the more expensive razors themselves. Growth was aided by a fierce print ad marketing campaign:
In 1918, the company landed a contract with the US Government. All US soldiers in WWI were provided with Gillette razors (and blades). The Gillette Safety Razor Company began launching ads featuring soldiers and their razors. The company even ran misleading ads for razors that hadn’t even made it to the field.
Over the next two decades, Gillette continued to pour money into the advertising game. The 20’s and 30’s saw the launch of new razors, including “The Richwood,” “The Bostonian,” “The Big Fellow,” and “The Aristocrat.” Still, though, they were all different interpretations of the same business model: sell the razor for cheap, and depend on continued profit from disposable blades.
Then, in 1939, Gillette hit its sweet spot; that year, president Joseph Sprang purchased the rights to the World Series for $100,000. Afterward, the company found that its razors and blue blades sold four times better than the company had estimated. As a result, sports became Gillette’s world. By 1942, the company was on the radio, producing The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. Initially featuring the World Series, the All-Star Game, the Kentucky Derby, and various college bowl games, Cavalcade wound up being best known for Friday night boxing on NBC.
If the song sounds familiar, it’s because it is. “Look Sharp! Feel Sharp! Be Sharp!” was featured in Raging Bull in the scene where Jake LaMotta unveils his new nightclub and in the title screen of Nintendo’s Punch Out.
Animated character, Sharpie the Parrot, became something of a mascot for Gillette. He was featured on ads, singing the company’s jingles, “Look Sharp! Feel Sharp! Be Sharp!” and “How are ya fixed for blades?” Sharpie would often ‘introduce’ Cavalcade as well.
Cavalcade lasted, in various iterations, for decades. It became an international television series (Gillette World Sports Program), featuring the most popular sports in each respective country, and the theme song translated neatly into commercials.
Baseball was, however, the well Gillette returned to time and again. An entire series of Gillette ads featuring MLB players and managers can be found online: Pee Wee Reese & Roy Campanella, Don Blasingame, Duke Snider, and Bill Mazeroski (check the wad of tobacco at the very beginning)to name a few.
By the 60’s, Gillette, along with its Madison Avenue advertising team, had helped create the new ideal for a man’s man: The American man was a patriot, a sportsman, and, above all, clean-shaven. King Camp may not have killed the beard by himself, but it could be said that he was at least an accessory to the murder.
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