Arctic Masculinity

The other day I went to the store to buy some deodorant and a new toothbrush. I do not buy these sorts of things often because 1) tooth brushes do not wear out that often and 2) like many people in Hawai’i I but things like deodorant, razors, rice, toilet paper etc. in bulk because of how much they cost. All of which is to say that I basically had little to no agenda re: the style and substance of the items I would be buying except that they would be cheap and make sure I held to the standards of first-world academic hygiene.

When I got to the store I was a little surprised to see how the market in scented men’s deodorant had changed since the last time I had purchased a shrink-wrapped twelve pack at Costco: all of the edgy body sprays with the “buy and wear this product and women will want you to rape them” ad campaigns had gained a scary amount of market share. They were also incredibly expensive. Since I was not looking to spend a lot of money to reinforce my sense of my sexual potency I gave them a pass.

The other options were what got me. Marketers have, somewhere, somehow, decided what men want to smell like. That smell, apparently, is ‘arctic’. There were various scents ranging from ‘artic blast’ to ‘avalanche’ to ‘blizzard’ — all having to do with unstoppable, low-temperature movement.

But that’s not all. The toothbrushes were also divided along gendered lines, with various pink and pastel colors for women and for men a variety of light blues. Was this the typical pink-blue gendering of infants expanded to oral hygeine? No, the packaging around the toothbrush informed me, it was not a powder-blue toothbrush, it was an arctic toothbrush.

Clearly we are dealing with specific system of meaning that comprehends the visible spectrum, gender performances, and scent. The system is clearly arbitrary and conventional: how did that chemical deodorant smell come to be associated with a geographical area? And how can a toothbrush, which has little to no scent, be ‘arctic’ at all? Is this simply the pink-blue distinction updated and reframed to be acceptably masculine? Is there something about nurturance/hygiene that goes back to the American male childhood which is still coded blue? I’d be interested in hearing what other people think about this.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

32 thoughts on “Arctic Masculinity

  1. I hadn’t thought about the Arctic Male side of things, but over on the aisle of “feminine products” what I’ve noticed lately is that we tend to either have the choice of fruity fragrance things (e.g shaving cream, lotion, shampoos), or on the other hand goddess references galore (e.g. Venus razors). Flowery things, fit right into the old blue-pink boy girl dichotomy along with puppies tails.. but now, women are apparently thought to also enjoy smelling like grapefruit or lavendar and while they shave invoke the goddesses…..(all in pursuit of a man)

  2. Re. the use of “arctic” to sell men’s hygiene products, I imagine it has much to do with the common characterization of cold weather as “refreshing”, as well as discouraging bacterial growth; both desirable associations for one’s mouth and armpits 🙂

  3. It would probably be quite hard to sell a deodorant called “tropic humidity”. Arctic Blast, on the other hand, now that’s going to stop my sweat. Is it the smell or the function which is being named/sold? And if the latter does it relate to the conventional gendering of function and frivolity, instrumentality and aesthetics?

    Arctic toothbrushes sound more arbitrary to me, although mint toothpaste is often sold as being cold and refreshing. But then my nephew calls mint candy canes “hot sticks” so…

    Meanwhile, I hear Frangipani is all the rage amongst the Inuit this season.

  4. Shit, I drink Glacier Freeze Gatorade for my long runs. Am I consuming men? Teeth is somewhere on my Netflix cue, maybe I should move it up and get some pointers.

    Seriously, it is interesting that the “cool” meme of masculinity pre-dates the Obama phenomenon. I wonder if Nate Silver had loaded that info into his regression analysis if he could have predicted the election results a few months earlier.

  5. If the primal question in cultural studies is ‘why this, why now?’ the obvious analogy is to the rise of hip-hop turntablism and vinyl scratch-mixing at precisely the dawn of the digital era. The object is thematized at its moment of death.

    As the icecaps melt, the owl of Minerva flies out of Rex’s armpit.

    Yes I am patenting that phrase.

  6. I’d be interested in hearing what other people think about this.

    I think the female spurious cosmetics market is saturated.

    The system is clearly arbitrary and conventional: how did that chemical deodorant smell come to be associated with a geographical area? And how can a toothbrush, which has little to no scent, be ‘arctic’ at all? Is this simply the pink-blue distinction updated and reframed to be acceptably masculine? Is there something about nurturance/hygiene that goes back to the American male childhood which is still coded blue?

    If only some of the ethnographers-for-hire that worked on these projects would find their way to this thread and comment on it.

  7. bq. The system is clearly arbitrary and conventional: how did that chemical deodorant smell come to be associated with a geographical area? And how can a toothbrush, which has little to no scent, be ‘arctic’ at all?

    A thought about process from someone who’s been there, in the bowels of the advertising beast. It began, I suspect, as a product development exercise, with someone saying something like, “Don’t people use deodorant to stay cool and comfortable.” Then, since the arctic has been in the news a lot due to melting ice cap and polar bear stories associated with global warming, someone else (or that same someone) said, “How about ‘arctic’?” Another influence may have been cigarette advertising, where arctic motifs have long been synonymous with menthol.

    Be that as it may, a product was launched and achieved some market share. Competitors began to launch similar products. Since, however, the word “arctic” had already been used, the copywriters for their products had to scramble for words with similar connotations, “blizzard,” “ice,” etc. The boomlet then attracted the attention of folks responsible for other personal care products. What’s the toothbrush guy to do? Since this is a different category, he can now use “arctic,” too.

    None of this is to deny the relevance of the gendered implications of blue is to pink or pastel as male is to female. The methodological problem is that these oppositions are too generic and too enduring to answer the questions Seth raises, “Why this? Why now?” Finding those answers will require a closer look.

  8. I think JP is close to the mark, actually.

    I suspect this connects to a migration of the imagery often used to advertise watches and outdoor wear to less ‘rugged’ products. If you flip open a National Geographic you’ll probably see some of the ads I mean – explorers/adventurers have sold watches in there for years!

    The Ant/Arctic is in a way the ‘final frontier’ – it is not heavily populated (scarcely at all in the public imaginary), is associated with feats of endurance, and Western visitors are (I’m taking a guess here, correct me if I’m wrong) more likely to be male than female. So as well as the literal connotations of ‘coolness’ (in the cold rather than trendy sense), it taps into a whole evocation of the sort of person who would ‘be’ Arctic. Concepts like endurance are handy too because they can be used to describe both the product and the consumer.

    I don’t know what the success rates of the explorer advertising strategy for watch and clothing sales are, but I’m inclined to think that the tropes have moved outwards from there because they’ve worked. It is interesting that clothes and watches etc are (can be) actually functional – if I want to go polar exploring or even just a walk on the moors at this time of year, I need a warm jacket. Deodorants are much less functional – OK, they can stop you being a bit pongy but realistically things like lemon juice and baking soda can do the same job. Of course, it is of great advertising value to tell us we really need something; but this is much harder to do for some products than others and the buying public will always be a bit iffy about hygiene products (“you need this to stop being smelly” probably won’t go down so well; similarly, menstrual products often concentrate on things like freedom and happiness and loo rolls obsessively give us puppy dogs). To sell a product like that advertisers instead fixate on some sort of value to associate with it, and attaching to hegemonic discourses on masculinity I would expect has a certain effectiveness.

    I’m not proof-reading this to pull together a more coherent argument but hopefully some of my cacophony of thoughts have come through there!

    Incidentally, and I admit to not having read it yet but have it queued, I note there is a call for a rethink of hegemonic masculinity (after Connell) and a series of replies to it in the latest Men & Masculinities –
    I’d be interested to chat about this further if anyone else is inclined.

  9. [I feel a bit guilty replying again given my lengthy blurt above!]

    I was amazed at the gendering of toothbrushes – did they actually have them in different sections (like ‘bloke’ toothbrushes with ‘bloke’ deodorants)?
    I’m sure there is a gap for someone to do toothbrush ethnography. What does it mean that since I moved to the UK I can only buy medium toothbrushes and have to send home for soft ones? I’m envisioning a website plotting toothbrush marketing by country and drawing tenuous cultural connections from it … where was all that discussion about anthropologists breaking through to the mainstream …!! 😉

  10. The dominating image I get from deodorant ads is that men work and play so hard that the sheer effort and stress causes them to sweat a lot. While an image from the temperate zones (“Irish Spring”) suggests a pleasant cooling off, Arctic blasts from the tundra are presented as the only way to tame such tough, strong effusions of manhood. The extreme nature of the solution is linked to the extreme nature of the problem — not smelliness per se but the honest outcome of being a successful man. I guess the fjords of Norway just don’t cut it.

  11. “cleansing, refreshing” = menthol = cold

    cold + extreme (that brightly-outfitted progeny of “rugged”) = arctic

    I think that, for toothbrushes at least, “arctic pink” is a definite possibility; “arctic” colors in general are pretty widespread, aren’t they, to refer to frosted-looking lightly-colored translucent plastics?

  12. Wow thanks for this feedback everyone. I am ashamed to admit that throughout this entire discussion that I never thought to associate ‘arctic’ with ‘cooling’ in the sense that people surrounded by cold air do not sweat. I also think it is possible that we, as connoisseurs of culture, have probably detected a richness and nuance to this cultural symbolism that the ad guys who came up with it did not. Or perhaps — and this is the crux of all symbolic analysis — we’re simply reading too much into it?

    I really think the comments about mint are key as well — mint is ‘cooling’ and ‘medicinal’ although it is green and not blue. In my time I’ve smoked mentholated cigarettes, drunk mentholated malt liquor (an intriguing item that briefly hit the test-market) and used mentholated shaving cream. Also shamrock shakes. Perhaps there is some sort of blue-shift happening with mint?

  13. Anyone looking for a comparable case should check out the discussion of the Energizer Bunny in the introduction to Jib Fowles, _Advertising and Popular Culture_. The rabbit is, of course, a familiar symbol for (sexual) energy. But why the sunglasses, the drum, the flip-flops, the intrusive invasion of other commercials… all part of the original campaign? One of the best descriptions of what advertising creatives do when we start playing with details that I have ever seen.

  14. I’m not so sure about the ‘reading too much into it’ line, especially when it comes to the gendered ~inities which function with a certain degree of normalising/”invisibilising”. This is a prime territory for nature/biology lines and ‘it just is’ style arguments being used to prop up things which clearly are not ‘just there’.
    Certainly on one level of symbolism arctic = cool so neutralises sweat = hot; but this doesn’t account for why fjords can’t equally be cold (Clare) and why women should be floral goddesses rather than cooled (Maggie B).

  15. i’m coming late to this discussion (was out buying Lavender-scented Tom’s of Maine Deodorant), but it strikes me that the obvious analysis hasn’t been attempted yet, which is that Artic is the Opposite of Hell, which is where women lead men, and so it is a bulwark against temptresses and their rose-scented nonsense. At least, I think that’s what Mary Douglas would say.

  16. Speaking as a Southerner who prefers a warm & sunny beach over the very idea of snow and ice, I always bypass the Arctic products in favor of “Cool Wave” or other ocean-themed items. The “cool” is still there usually, but in the context of cleansing water rather than cold air.

  17. bq. it strikes me that the obvious analysis hasn’t been attempted yet, which is that Artic is the Opposite of Hell

    Come on, Chris, read your Dante. The bottommost level of Hell is frozen stiff.

  18. John, it’s so tempting isn’t it to assign all these meanings to the text and then read intention back into them. Thanks for keeping accident, improvisation and bricolage in view.

    BJG, fjords aren’t in play because lots of folks don’t know what they are; or if they do, don’t immediately associate them with cold. But more importantly, when the crew is sitting around the table free-associating from ‘cool, comfortable’, fjord just isn’t the first thing that comes up, or the fourth, and by the time this theme ticks down to that checkbox it will have gone stale and it’ll be time to brainstorm another one.

    Clare’s on the money about the ‘extreme’ thing, which is an all-purpose accelerator for lazy marketers nowadays, and not gendered: if we are to believe ads for menstrual products, the flows of Niagara must be absorbed each month and space-age technologies deployed to do so.

  19. bq. Thanks for keeping accident, improvisation and bricolage in view.

    My pleasure. Coincidentally, I have been rereading Victor Turner’s Morgan Lectures _The Ritual Process_. The first chapter, “Planes of Classification” has something important to contribute to this discussion. It isn’t just that symbols have multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings; which are highlighted depends on the ritual [ad or occasion] in question.

    So I find myself pondering what it is that makes “arctic” an appealing description for deodorant in a world and historical moment when “hot” is applied approvingly to both men and women who are seen as sexually attractive. What are the situations in which “hot” should be replaced or masked with with “cold” or, conversely, “hot AND smelly” is embarrassing?

  20. ‘John, it’s so tempting isn’t it to assign all these meanings to the text and then read intention back into them.’ [Carl]

    Seeing meaning does not mean we equally see conscious intention along with it.
    This, to me, is an obvious point; for better elaboration I suggest corralling a member of an English faculty, pointing to their latest paper, and announcing “but the author didn’t intend that”.

    Do I think that somewhere sometime a bunch of advertising people sat in a room and had a conversation along the lines of:
    “I really think we need to connect to cultural ideas of rugged, adventurous masculinity”
    “Exactly, we clearly need to differentiate our product, and hence men, from the feminine goddess imagery evoked in our women’s fragrance campaign”
    No, of course not.

    But I absolutely do think that it regardless connects into a barrage of representations of men and masculinities (and I’m a little surprised this seems such a difficult concession). I don’t think it is the explanation in its entirety, and John brings in a very nice perspective with Turner.

    John, your hotness (sorry!) point is well observed. Rex mentioned in his earlier post that the other deodorant imagery option was “wear this product and women will want you to rape them” – do those evoke hot/cool? Does the arctic imagery suggest that the icily blasted bloke can pull too, or is he more of a lone adventuring type?

    Steve Coogan reminded me that deodorants have arrived in the arctic via Africa 🙂

  21. bq. Seeing meaning does not mean we equally see conscious intention along with it.

    Of course. But the critical methodological question is still how do we justify the meaning we claim to see. Turner’s opus offers some hints:

    1. Ground analysis of possible meanings in a corpus instead of a single case.
    2. Closely examine the circumstances surrounding each individual case, including where possible the social relations and interpersonal histories of the actors involved.

    Applied to advertising this would mean

    1′. Mapping the range of possible meanings evoked by all competing ads within the category and time frame in question.
    2′. Considering the relationships of creators to each other, the audience implied by the ad, and the actual audience. (It is often, if not usually, the case that the implied and actual audiences differ. Alcoholic beverages, for example, are frequently consumed by people who differ dramatically from those depicted in ads for the beverages in question.)

    Competing interpretations can then be evaluated by the amount of detail they account for, including the sequences in which particular details occur.

    Anyone who is interested can find this thinking elaborated for the case of a Taiwanese exorcism in my 1995 paper “Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language” in _American Ethnologist_.

  22. Why do we need to cover our human smell with fake chemical smells? It’s always bothered me, it seems like a deep disconnect with our bodies, a kind of hypocrisy.

    But honestly, no matter what lame names marketer’s invent for men’s products, women’s products always give me more of a laugh. Think of all the commercials of women gliding along a beach or in a meadow or some other ultra-green background, content that their vaginas smell like “Summer’s Eve” or “Ocean Spray” or “Tranquil Pines” or “Peach sunset” or some other such nonsense.

    I like the quotation from the play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” by Shange where one of the women is talking about ‘feminine hygeine spray’ incredulously and says: “Rain!? I don’t want my p*ssy to smell like rain! I want it to smell like p*ssy!” LOL.

  23. [BJG sez] “But I absolutely do think that it regardless connects into a barrage of representations of men and masculinities”

    For sure! Here there be some of the contextual subtleties John is pointing at. For example, it is not correct that fancy stanks are marketed to men as “wear this product and women will want you to rape them.” It’s actually ‘wear this product and women will want to rape you’ (look at the predatory eyes on those models), because this is the fantasy world of the anxiously undermasculinized pencil-necks who have trouble asking women out and are the likely market for such products. ‘Real men’ don’t fret about how they smell, and if they want to enhance their masculinity they buy a truck, a drill press, or a gun. (These are of course zones within a general field of masculinities, mapping which is or should be the evil genius of marketers.)

    I also spoke too quickly when I said ‘extreme’ is not gendered. It is true that there is a kind of macho to having the heaviest flow and needing the industrial strength staunchification systems, which those ads exploit if not interpellate. Nevertheless, we have not yet seen an ad in which a towering wave of red liquid is calmly confronted and absorbed by a dashing cartoon maxipad in an aviator helmet, goggles and scarf. Nor is Tampax yet marketing a “Tsunami Plus.”

    I hope I didn’t jump the shark here, I’m really starting to enjoy this thread.

  24. bq. But I absolutely do think that it regardless connects into a barrage of representations of men and masculinities

    “Absolutely,” “barrage”: On cool reflection, who would expect anything else? Everything marketers market is sold to human beings, i.e., to men or to women. That most ads employ, implicitly if not explicitly, representations or one or the other (or frequently both) is entirely predictable. An ad that doesn’t is a rarity, indeed.

    Thus, analytically speaking, the interesting questions have to do with “Why these particular representations? Why these applied to men versus those applied to women? At this particular moment in history? For these particular products? Used in these situations?

    Consider, for example, the Venus razor commercials that I saw repeatedly while watching Countdown during the recent election. What is, after all, the relation between a woman’s revealing her goddess and shaving her legs?

    One can go further: Consider the casting. Why multiple women instead of one? And why these women? Why are they dressed the way they are? What do their voices and gestures tell us about the kind of woman they are supposed to represent?

    I recall an observation I owe to my daughter, who having grown up in Japan went to Japan and became a Navy helicopter pilot. She once pointed out to me that women in her class at Annapolis had very different attitudes from earlier generations of female officers. They, the leaders in breaking into what had been a very masculine world, had minimized their femininity: No weak girly stuff for them. By my daughter’s generation, Annapolis was still a very macho place (“I have never been in a place where the testosterone level is so high,” she once told me), but women had been going there for nearly twenty years, they made up over 10 percent of the class, and received a lot of institutional support. So much that my daughter’s biggest complaint was guys who blamed her promotions on affirmative action instead of merit.

    But, reverting to topic, my daughter and her classmates no longer found it necessary to deny their femininity. In uniform, yes, 120%, we’ll show the bastards we’re better than they are. But on leave, hair, clothes, jewelry–as my wife observed, the only way you could tell the difference between them and other women at a Georgetown nightclub was posture; their military training showed in the way they carried themselves.

    So I look at the women in those Venus razor commercials, and I can’t help noticing that these are not shrinking violets. They are good-looking but not, I observe, glamorous in a sultry, come-hither mode. Neither are they anorexic; no “heroin chic” here.

    And look at the scenes, a beach, a bare stage or a single chair. These aren’t happy housewives, messing around in the kitchen or delighted by the absence of ring around the collar.

    I’d say single, late 20s, early 30s. Yes, they like being sexy. But there is more to that goddess schtick than sex appeal. There’s a confidence, an assertion of personal power, a pride in who I am, that’s a long, long way from poor little me dependent on my man.

    How did that ever happen?

  25. Please excuse the slop. “went to Japan” should, of course, be “went to Annapolis” and I’ve found a few more typos as well. Damn, I wish this site let authors edit their messages.

  26. So sorry, my wife informs me that in the current feminine products nomenclature it would be the “Tsunami Ultra.”

    Over dinner last night we decided that for the next little while, we will describe things and events that suck as “Arctic Blast;” things that are ordinary but unremarkable as “Arctic Blast Ultra;” and things that are actually pretty neat as “Arctic Blast Extreme.”

    As in, “Sarah Palin was like, so Arctic Blast, but then when Obama won it was Arctic Blast Extreme!”

    John, didn’t it happen because so many women have incomes independent of men now and are therefore autonomous consumers? A woman with an income can be more choosy and isn’t so much in competition with other women for a man as a meal ticket. This opens up a lot of semiotic space.

    Why it happened has to do with the hard-won accomplishments of heroic feminists, structurally enabled by the transformation of labor in late capitalism.

  27. bq. Why it happened has to do with the hard-won accomplishments of heroic feminists, structurally enabled by the transformation of labor in late capitalism.

    Of course. The question is an invitation for others to pitch in. Still looking for someone to explain the connection between revealing the goddess and shaving legs. The only thing I can think of is the absence of hairy legs in representations of divine women. Does anyone know of an art tradition in which this is not the case?

  28. There are too many comments here and not enough time in the evening to read them all, but I would just like to mention that I find it hilarious that the ‘arctic’ branding is so common, supposedly defining cool, dry and sexy attractiveness, when in fact being outdoors in the arctic involves rugging up in thermals and therefore;

    A) Becoming uncomfortably warm if you exert yourself in any minor fashion (cool?)
    B) Sweating like an absolute bitch no matter what deoderant you use (dry?);
    C) Looking like an animated candy fluffball (sexy?)

  29. With regard to the nature of the rehashing of cheap tropes in advertising, I found a odd a recent ad for Edge shaving gel ( an admittance, in many ways, of the limited originality of advertising (particularly when it’s to do with men’s toiletries) but doesn’t seem to offer anything new- just smoothability, kissability and son on. They mock this, but still pursue it- and of course bikini-clad girls.

  30. jessup1897 raises an interesting issue. It is absolutely true that when it comes to basic benefits most products and, thus, most advertising have little new to say. Let us note, however, that this is a fact of which the people who make ads are well aware. Alistair Compton’s _Craft of Copywriting_, which I first read in the early 1980s when I stumbled into advertising, begins with this point. There are, says Compton, two types of projects. In the first and rarer type, there is real news to convey; the writer should just present it as clearly and straightforwardly as possible. In the second, more common type, you are asked to create ads for what is at best a parity product, i.e., a product on a par with competing products. Then, he said, it is time for P.T. Barnum. It’s show time. The issue is no longer what you say, but can you say it in a way that seems more fresh and compelling than the competitors’ ads.

    This situation is now, however, peculiar to advertising. I once took a seminar on Metaphysics in which the professor began by asserting that there were no more than 75 original ideas in the history of philosophy. To learn the art of philosophical reasoning, we were asked to draw five ideas from a hat and construct a metaphysics based on all and only those ideas.

    Consider, too, the current state of anthropological or, more broadly, social science or cultural studies theory. How many genuinely new or different ideas can you come up with? Recombinations may generate new insights. Advances in technology offer new fields to research and new tools for tackling old problems. But mainly buzzwords multiply. The signal to noise ratio? Not, in my experience, all that different from advertising.

Comments are closed.