Nivea’s advertising, and the controversies that surround it, can be situated in a larger cultural politics of defending white, heterosexual, hegemonic masculine and feminine subject types. Their products in particular, as means of representing the body, are a prime site for this type of contestation and formation of ideals. Proper consumption itself becomes a means of achieving the ‘purity’ of the deodorant ad, and the distinguished ‘civilization’ of the men’s ad. Purity becomes something which can be achieved and maintained through correct purchases, but still only within the realm of those who can afford it, and as the ads suggest, for white, gender-conforming people. These products and regimes of caring for the body serve to shore up these ideal male and female subjects through presentation. By using these commodities, the consumer can become masculine or feminine in the correct ways.
The Crisis Of Manhood
In the chapter “T-Power” in his book The Trouble With Nature (2003) Roger Lancaster describes a series of social changes, including the rise of feminism, which have lead to the crisis of the “dispossessed” man in the cultural imaginary. He writes,
“First, with the rise of big industry, the way men worked was changing. The sharp decline of middle-class self-employment necessarily implied a crisis for the ideal of high-minded, self-restrained manhood it had once sustained. At the same time, an emergent women’s movement challenged men’s monopoly over education and their “natural” authority in the political sphere. Immigrant labor organizations and political machines further undermined the power of white, middle-class men in every major city. No doubt large numbers of previously secure men were rendered nervous, if not outright disoriented, by these social changes” (2003:158).
Lancaster argues that this perception of endangered masculinity led to a variety of renegotiations of the masculine, especially through figures and tropes of male characters in popular culture. Nivea’s own shift in marketing in 1986 seems to echo rising concerns about masculinity in an era of burgeoning feminism. When they write that men would no longer “have to use products that belonged to their wives, sisters or mothers” as justification for their new line, they are addressing the fears of men being feminized as women take over their domains. A clear divide between the products of men and women is necessary – a man caught using non-manly lotion commits the sin of being too effeminate, further eroding his social position.
The 2011 advertisements for the men’s line also represent an attempt to carve out a masculine space. The difference in results garnered from the products between men and women further showcases the desire to mark the proper subjectivities and spaces of the two genders. Whereas skin care and lotion for women helps to make supple, glowing, attractive skin, the men’s version purportedly returns them to a higher masculine domain of work. It also works to reinstate a nature/culture binary, where men are cultured beings of higher, capitalist society, while ads and descriptions of feminine products emphasize their organic ingredients and a return to a natural body. Situating the campaign in ‘Sin City’ also conjures up imagery of a masculine space full of women in the positions of showgirls and escorts.
Lancaster’s point about job insecurity and the decline of a stable, white middle class as a result of immigration and racial tensions underlies the difference in civilization rhetoric in the men’s advertisements. If increasing numbers of non-white men have access to the same spheres and benefits traditionally beholden to the white middle class, if they can even shop and consume the same products, some differentiation must be reinstated to counter this anxiety. The ads are visual affirmation of hegemonic white masculinity.
In addition to this binary line between the realm of women and men, NIVEA’s history upholds a hegemonic ideal of white, Eurocentric femininity even when advertising in other countries. Use of these products by white women enables them to reach a level of feminine refinement, while women of color, the advertising suggests, need these products to begin to approximate white feminine ideals. In addition to the Middle Eastern “Purity” campaign already discussed, Nivea frequently markets their products as creating “visibly fairer skin”, “natural fairness” and lotions that “visibly lighten”. These tag lines are notoriously attached to images of female models with dark skin, such as this image which appeared on billboards across Africa in 2017.They also released a shocking video which illustrates the same product physically lightening a black woman’s skin. These regional differences in advertising by an international company portray not only individual hegemony of white women, but Eurocentric cultural superiority. Rather than catering their products to match the needs of each consumer base, their advertisements consistently reinforce a nationalist white femininity.
In her analysis of the evolutions of femininity in the figure of the Southern Belle, Tara McPherson identifies a shift which coincides with the crisis of manhood. She writes that “White southern women’s move into a broader public role historically coincides with a wider regional (and national) move to curtail the rights of blacks, and it is important to recognize the way these two moments reinforced each other” (2003:191). Development of the quintessential Southern femininity occurred against the figure of the less refined, sometimes less than subject, black woman. A similar move appears in Nivea’s advertisements geared towards women as with men. The ads serve to secure and reinstate the position of white femininity by portraying a differentiated use of their products, and by curating whiteness as the goal – the ultimate body to ‘care’ for.
In the context of globalized markets and cross-country commodities, these particular, ideal white men and women are squarely situated as subjects of a Western world. Nivea has faced criticism in the past and has been involved in a number of marketing scandals concerning their racist advertisements, yet persists in creating similar media, even just last year in 2017. It seems as though the nature of their products, as intimately related to bodies and, as a result, their skins and genders, always leads back to the regulation of those bodies by hegemonic ideals.