THE IMAGE OF THE BALD MAN, THOUGH OFTEN NEGATIVE, HAS CHANGED ENOUGH THAT WE’RE SEEING MORE AND MORE OF THEM IN ADVERTISING AND MARKETING.
The year 1958 was a watershed one for the hair loss community. That year saw the debut of a commercial for a cleaning product featuring a tall, muscular, earring-wearing bald man who was destined to become an advertising icon: Mr. Clean!
Five decades later Mr. Clean is still going strong, and his shining head has a great deal to do with that impressive longevity. His lack of hair continues to set him apart from many male figures in advertising, even if that situation is changing.
“Balding men may always be portrayed negatively in some way — by making fun of an ugly comb-over, etcetera — but a man that is shaved bald…”
“Balding men have appeared in advertising in the past but often negatively, although there are exceptions to this rule,” says Ronnie Lebow, president and founder of Bald Media, a firm specializing in guerrilla marketing techniques (and who is himself a bald man).
“I think times have changed drastically,” he adds. “Balding men may always be portrayed negatively in some way — by making fun of an ugly comb-over, etcetera — but a man that is shaved bald and is in great shape is now seen in North America in a different light than, say, 20 years ago, when a man shaved completely bald was menacing. Baldness has also often been regarded as a sign of wisdom, so a balding man may also have portrayed a schoolteacher, professor or scientist on television. Because so many men shave their heads today, bald men don’t raise eyebrows anymore.”
Hair loss: “Unlucky and unattractive”
“However, in many parts of the world,” Lebow continues, “being bald is still considered unlucky and unattractive.” “Fortunately, there are many movie stars now sporting a clean pate, and because of this, attitudes toward bald men are changing. Bruce Willis reeks cool. So does Vin Diesel. Bald men are no longer guys hiding under baseball caps. They are now in mainstream media and walking the runways.”
Michael Berkman, a freelance creative director whose clients have included MTVN/Spike TV and BBC America, agrees. “The bald look wasn’t that prevalent 15 years ago,” he says. “Advertising tends to reflect what’s popular, so when you see it on the streets, you’ll probably see it in advertisements. Rarely does it go the other way.”
“When those of us in the marketing community are searching for people to represent a character, we are forced to typecast,” Berkman explains. “We don’t expect the audience to take the time to figure out who someone is supposed to represent. Hairstyle can say a lot about a character. Often, older bald men are used stereotypically to convey intelligence, while younger men with the shaved-head look can be used interchangeably with fully haired men. That is a perfectly legitimate hairstyle.”
“With men like Bruce Willis being sex symbols, I don’t think any advertiser would hesitate to feature a shaved-headed man in their campaigns. Ever since Michael Jordan started shaving his head, it’s been acceptable to feature bald men in ads.”
Casting director Brooke Thomas concurs. “Ten years ago the commercial market was looking for Procter & Gamble-type people,” she says, “by which I mean blond hair, blue eyes, very midwestern looking. Today the commercial market looks for people from all walks of life, all types. It is the rare occasion that we are asked specifically for bald men or asked specifically not to cast bald men.”
“A bald man can convey several different images,” Thomas adds. “He can be a mature, distinguished businessman; a blue-collar construction worker; a policeman; a cowboy; a teacher or a senator. There is really no one thing that a bald man conveys. Just like every other man, it is about the entire package, not just the top of his head.”
Hair loss and advertising: The times they are a changing
In other words, men with hair loss are no longer relegated strictly to advertisements for commercials aimed at hair systems; however, that doesn’t mean that baldness is always treated in the most positive light.
An ad from a few years ago featured a man who tried to disguise the fact that he was bald by pasting candy bars to his pate. A popular ad for a delivery service featured a character wearing an intentionally ludicrous toupee who nevertheless claimed that he was the exception to the rule that men in his family were bald. While clearly intended as humorous, neither ad really speaks very well of those with hair loss.
To counterbalance this, there have been a number of “bald-positive” spots in recent years. A shaving product featured an ad in which a man shaving his stubbled chin felt compelled to free his pate of hair, as well. For eight years Spain’s Christmas Lottery was promoted by ads featuring a bald actor. The ads and the actor became immensely popular with the public.
Perhaps most prominently, ads for Six Flags have for some time starred an old, bald man who is rejuvenated by his exposure to the parks’ fun-filled attractions. It’s true that the character reinforces an association between baldness and age, but his spirit and zest help to overcome that connection.
Even more noteworthy, many more advertisements now feature bald men as simply part of the regular, everyday world of people. A gleaming dome pops up on one of several clients in a tax service commercial or on a man in the street in a cheese commercial, simply because hair loss is finally being accepted as just another characteristic of the public at large.
Nobody’s yet crowding out Mr. Clean, but he does have more balding commercial compadres nowadays.