Peter York On Ads

Hair is just an option and baldness is a statement. So Nivea wants us to get shaving
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The Independent Online

Last week the 'Daily Mail' ran a spread showing celebs computer-imaged into slap-heads. The distinguished baldies were young and old, male and female.

But in 2008 you hardly notice a thing. You feel you might've seen them like that before. It just looks like fashion. We've seen Britney newly shaved. And Sinead O'Connor did it for years. It's not exactly mainstream but polite mothers will tell their children not to stare.

Now ladies can do whatever they like. They can wear hair, or none, or a wig, without saying much about their state of mind or their politics. But completely shaven men were a worry for years, unless they were exotics like Yul Brynner, who had the Tartar 'King and I' look to go with it. Or even Kojak, because Telly Savalas's extreme Greekness made him a sort of honorary Middle Easterner.

But otherwise, down-to-the-bone baldness was wrong: it meant menacing, marginal or ill. The familiar images of slapheads were of brutish men humiliated by institutions. Shaven heads meant the prison or the madhouse. You knew the escapees in Fifties films by their stary eyes and shaven heads. You knew the psychopath in the festering room; he was the one who shaved his head before committing random murders.

During the Seventies the shaven head became more difficult to read. There were still those marginals but, confusingly, there were other types who wouldn't hurt a fly. And the marginals went from individual to tribal. Skinheads of all kinds – original, revival and residual – became part of the demonology of decent bourgeois types. There were skins and skins – National Front ones and, later, Rock against Racism types – but you needed to be very confident to see the difference.

Then in the Eighties, a shaven head became part of the new gay code, a rejection of the old moustache-and-leather look. So people who looked like trouble at first would be chirruping away about John Galliano and Anna Wintour. And designland men – straight men in their 30s and 40s – started pioneering the shaven head as the streamlined solution for male pattern baldness.

Somewhere in there, between skinhead, new gay and designland, the shaven head became mainstream and, by the 1990s, unremarkable for men from 16 to 60. Hair had become residual, optional.

The new Nivea Extreme Comfort shaving gel commercial wouldn't have worked 10 years ago. It's the familiar set-up – a handsome, brown-haired, bare-chested model shaving. The voiceover says Nivea makes shaving "extremely pleasurable" (they'll have debated that word for hours; probably researched it in Essex). And there's the science, a computer-generated Gillette-ish thing showing beard hair looking soothed. Then the camera pans up Mr Man as he walks beyond the obligatory girlfriend. He's shaved it all off and looks vaguely Beckhamish, while the screen says Nivea's what men want. What do men want? To look like everyone else in the pub, of course.