This article originally appeared on Broadly Austria.
If you're looking directly at a drugstore shelf, you don't need to stare for long in order to determine which products are geared towards women or men. Women's products are dominated by bright, colorful packages with rounded bottles and soft lettering; products for men bear darker colors and come in plastic bottles with as many corners and edges as possible. When it comes to shower gel, women have the choice between an array of different fragrances, ranging from blackberry, vanilla, and dragonfruit to desert flowers, sandalwood, or sugar-filled stars with little clouds extracted from rainbow showers.
But what options do we have for men, the so-called "stronger sex" often depicted in commercials as adventurers and adrenaline junkies? Just "MEN" in capital letters. This must be quite important, because many major manufacturers pay attention to it.
Most people probably have an approximate idea of what blackberries or vanilla smell like without sniffing at the bottle itself. But MEN? What does a man smell like?
"The fragrance can't be too flowery, sweet, or obtrusive," explains a representative from Men's Health POWER, a line of body products designed by the men's interest magazine, at Broadly's request, adding that "freshness" plays a crucial role. "That's why the Men's Health POWER shower gels include substances like menthol and tiger grass, which make the fragrance more 'masculine.'"
NIVEA advertises their products as "masculine" and carrying "distinctive fragrances," but they didn't disclose to Broadly what that meant exactly. "We can't give a global statement, because there's always different trends in individual countries. Minty notes are preferred in the UK; fruity [ones] in France; green in Spain; and chypre, [a blend of oak moss, rocky labdanum, patchouli, and bergamot] fragrances in Germany and Austria."
Dove, ADIDAS, Palmolive, Fa, AXE, Playboy, and Balea declined to comment when we inquired about fragrance composition for their products.
From the responses we did receive, it appears that MEN smells richer and sharper than products designed for women—but the additional names on the packaging, like "Energy," "Fresh," "Active," "Sport," or "Cool" rarely refer to the actual scent of the contents. So do men naturally smell like that, or was this all invented by the industry?
"In women, I've also experienced very harsh body fragrances, and very gentle and soft ones in men."
Elisabeth Oberzaucher, a behavioral biologist at the University of Vienna and a member of Science Busters (an informational and comedic YouTube group comprised of Austrian scientists), is currently researching attractiveness and partner selection, and has worked extensively with body odor. She argues that the fragrances we choose for ourselves are directly related to our own body odor, in that we prefer smells that match our natural scent. That smell is sharper and harder in men, because the breakdown products from androgens are much more present in the naturally occurring odor of the biologically male body. In other words, you could say that men prefer the MEN fragrance because they already smell vaguely like it.
But Yogesh Kumar, Austria's only perfumer, doesn't agree. His shop in Vienna, Yogesh Parfum, has a pleasantly lemony fragrance to it. Originally from India, Kumar has been living in Austria for 20 years, and he develops fragrance concepts for trade fairs and companies, and also designs individual scents to match a customer's personality (his store operates by appointment only). Kumar states that he's smelled the necks of over 4,000 men and women, and views body odor as something deeply individual. He argues that this only conditionally has something to do with sex. "In women, I've also experienced very harsh body fragrances, and very gentle and soft ones in men." His trained nose should reveal the mystery of the MEN fragrance.
So how does MEN's shower gel smell to him?
"Everything smells chemically," he says, even before he's opened the three different shower gels we presented. "These are all chemical products [that are] more or less perfumed. The added perfume must primarily cover the chemical odor of the product, while the scent gives the people a classification: Light, fruity, gentle, powdery notes, for example, are feminine fragrances; citrus, flaky, spicy, tart, and herbaceous are male [ones]."
Kumar thinks the distinction is a marketing fable aimed at increasing profits and providing people with a clearer idea of classifications. "But no man is just male, and no woman is just female!" he says.
The allegation that gender marketing is an attempt to divide customers into clearly defined target groups isn't entirely unjustified. In their book Sell to Adam and Eve, Diana Jaffè and Vivien Manazon write that men typically shop with a purpose: They have one to a maximum of three criteria that a product must meet, and they'll buy the first one they see that meets those requirements.
However, there is also literature that contradicts this crude simplification. Eva Kreienkamp writes in Gender-Marketing that a man's depilation is an example of how modern gender roles can be broken. Jaffè, meanwhile, argues in What Women and Men Buy that while gender differences are often socially constructed, identifying and emphasizing biological traits like hormonal preconditions explains what really matters from a commercial viewpoint: "Marketing isn't about gender equality; it's about sustainable factors like sales, income, and [monetary] return."
From a marketing standpoint, one thing is clear: The goal is to give men the feeling of being a real "man," and—if the brand isn't specifically geared towards men already, like AXE or Men's Health are—write "MEN" on the product in massive letters so it's immediately apparent that this specific shower gel doesn't mar the socially prescribed definition of masculinity.
What the term MEN really means has less to do with a spicy, bitter, sharp, herbaceous, or fresh scent, but the conveyed and socially constructed idea of masculinity. Whether one needs this confirmation of their own masculinity or, as Kumar suggests, doesn't want to be at odds with his own body odor, the task of finding the scent that really matches your sense of self is left to you and you alone. Hopefully our society isn't far from the day where everyone, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum, is allowed to smell like vanilla-glitter-butter-flowers, if they so desire.
Translated by Rainer Henkel.