As the message boards of numerous expat forums will attest, Koreans simply don’t wear deodorant, except for a few young urban sophisticates in the summer. What’s more, it’s likely almost all of those young urban sophisticates are women, as there have been no deodorant commercials aimed at Korean men yet (although Nivea did start using men alongside women for in-store promotions from 2007).
But why on Earth not? While I disagree with most prevailing explanations for the origins of Korea’s own, distinct brand of metrosexuality, that doesn’t mean that in the last decade or so there hasn’t been an explosive growth in sales of men’s skincare, cosmetic and grooming products to accompany that. It seems strange that Korean men prepared to spend the money and time on, say, wearing “masculine” sunblock for ten months of the year, wouldn’t also be concerned about how they smelled.
In Japan, even the middle-aged ajosshis are:
Explanations of why both sexes don’t wear deodorant usually focus on their (allegedly) sweating less than the average Westerner and the different kinds of foods that they eat. But personally, I give much more credence to the notion that — to the extent that most Koreans had even heard of the stuff until very recently — it was considered a luxury that few could afford, Korean consumerism in general still being trapped in the mentality of four decades ago. Back then, basic items were scarce, food barely adequate and lacking in quality or variety, and domestic monopolies and the restrictions on the imports of consumer meant that the customer was expected to be grateful for whatever he or she was given, as evidenced today by, for example: the gifting of soap, spam, cooking oil and/or shampoo (examples) on the two biggest holidays of Chuseok (추석) and Seollal (설날); a cuisine culture that — frankly — seems to consist of little more than throwing everything available together and then smothering the combination with salt, sugar or spicy pepper paste; and the often appalling customer service that still prevails in 2008 respectively.
Only slightly tongue-in-cheek, one could also argue that with virtually no-one wearing it and everyone used to the bad smell of each other to the extent that they don’t notice it, then the very minimal benefits of an individual wearing it mirror, say, the economics of my recently purchasing a videocall-capable phone: initially very expensive to myself, completely useless if others don’t have one also, but with increasing benefits to me as others do buy and use them (i.e. I can both talk to more and more people and services will probably become cheaper). Similarly, in the case of expensive Korean deodorant, as the number of users increased then Korean noses would become more and more sensitive to distinguishing between those who did and didn’t use it, and then later to lower prices and people having positive associations with and assumptions about the former group (source, left: cjswoxodwk).
Seemingly regardless of that background however, while it is true that early deodorant commercials featured – in a quintessentially Korean fashion – having a motherly figure explaining the benefits to respectfully attentive and nodding young Korean women (but which unfortunately predate the YouTube era), and that the first commercial below from just two years ago seemed to emphasize friendship more than anything else, commercials aimed at women are increasing in quantity and sophistication every summer, most like these two here and here (I can’t seem to embed them unfortunately) emphasizing deodorant’s supposed benefits in attracting the opposite sex just like their Western counterparts. Moreover, while for various reasons I personally hate any dubbed commercials, you don’t have to speak Korean to understand that the woman in the the second video opens with “What part of my body do you like the best? My legs? My ass? Or my hands?”, which, to put it mildly, you don’t otherwise hear all too often on Korean daytime television. Any wonder that it’s still the most popular deodorant commercial in Korea a year later?
But still, why aren’t deodorants marketed to men here? Actually there is a very detailed report on the Korean deodorant market available on the internet which may have the answer, and I’m quite happy to receive donations towards the US$753(!) required to purchase it and to pass on its conclusions when I do. But in the meantime, via this article on perfume science from the Economist magazine I’ve found, if perhaps not a perfect solution to the conundrum, then at least pointers towards further investigation. Here’s the gist of it, with my emphases throughout:
THE very word “perfume” has feminine overtones to many male ears. Men can be sold “deodorant” and possibly “aftershave”, but the idea of all those dinky little bottles with their fussy paraphernalia is too much for the sensitive male ego. Yet no industry can afford to neglect half its potential market, and perfume-makers are ever keen to crack the shell of male reticence. Now they may know how to do so.
Craig Roberts of the University of Liverpool and his colleagues-working with a team from Unilever’s research laboratory at nearby Port Sunlight-have been investigating the problem. They already knew that appropriate scents can improve the mood of those who wear them. What they discovered, though, as they will describe in a forthcoming edition of the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, is that when a man changes his natural body odor it can alter his self-confidence to such an extent that it also changes how attractive women find him.
Half of Dr Roberts’s volunteers were given an aerosol spray containing a commercial formulation of fragrance and antimicrobial agents. The other half were given a spray identical in appearance but lacking active ingredients. The study was arranged so that the researchers did not know who had received the scent and who the dummy. Each participant obviously knew what he was spraying on himself, since he could smell it. But since no one was told the true purpose of the experiment, those who got the dummy did not realize they were being matched against people with a properly smelly aerosol.
Over the course of several days, Dr Roberts’s team conducted a battery of psychological tests on both groups of volunteers. They found that those who had been given the commercial fragrance showed an increase in self-confidence. Not that surprising, perhaps. What was surprising was that their self-confidence improved to such an extent that women who could watch them but not smell them noticed. The women in question were shown short, silent videos of the volunteers. They deemed the men wearing the deodorant more attractive. They were, however, unable to distinguish between the groups when shown only still photographs of the men, suggesting it was the men’s movement and bearing, rather than their physical appearance, that was making the difference.
For Unilever and other manufacturers of men’s scent, this is an important discovery. The firm’s marketing of its main product in this area, a deodorant called Lynx, plays up the so-called “Lynx Effect” – which is supposed to make men irresistibly attractive to women. Dr Roberts’s experiment, however, suggests that the advertised “Born chicka wah wah” of the product may have nothing to do with a woman’s appreciation of the smell, and everything to do with its psychological effect on the man wearing it.
The rest of the article focuses on the scientific theories of smell and attractiveness, not uninteresting in themselves, and I highly recommend you read the full article, especially the comments. Finally, a quick excerpt from the conclusion:
There are many useful inferences that might be drawn from this research. One would be that a woman’s choice of perfume will resist the vagaries of fashion. This may explain why most innovation in the industry involves changes in packaging and marketing, producing all that fussy paraphernalia, rather than changing what is in the bottle.
In hindsight of course, all quite obvious: I’m sure that we can all appreciate how, say, going through the process of our “date preparation routine” — showering listening to your favorite music, wearing more expensive clothes than usual, and finally putting on your expensive perfume/cologne/deodorant strictly reserved for special occasions, and so on – was a very important factor in getting into the mood for it, even though in hindsight showering immediately beforehand would have washed off natural pheromones crucial for the date’s success.
Hence my dismal record.
Also, while the reasons were unknown until know, manufacturers have undoubtedly long been aware of the effects of the phenomenon, but if not then the basic mechanics of capitalism alone — the inevitable saturation of markets and the rates of profit to fall — would constantly compel them to rebrand and repackage their products, the latest manifestations of which seem to be a decidely “Arctic” theme of absolutely any cosmetic marketed towards Western men.
But what does this tell us about the absence of such commercials in Korea?
For a time, I was planning to look at the origins of Korean metrosexuality for my MA thesis (summary here), put wisely rejected that topic after necessarily watching hundreds of Korean cosmetics commercials aimed at men. Only now though, can I see that a surprising common theme of them is the almost complete absence of women in them. Or to be more precise, with exceptions such as the notorious, multi-layered one with Ahn Jung-hwan (안정환) from 2003 above (video, alas, unavailable), of the relatively few times women are featured in them most of the time they are not at all there to demonstrate the product’s alleged effects on women. Rather, generally they are effectively mere props in narratives very much focused on the men themselves.
Some examples, with and without women, starting with…yes, that one with Ahn and Kim Jae-won (김재원) that unfortunately utterly defined Korean masculinity to a generation of expats in 2002, (update: while I’m at it, I’ve added a parody by some Seoul students also) then with Ahn again and Hyun-bin (현빈) in 2006, unfortunately cutting prematurely his distinctive gesture and facial expression at the end:
Now two more commercials, both with Hyun-bin and from 2006, and the second with Kim Hye-su (김혜수). While they appear at first glance to feature women lusting after Hyun, in fact both commercials are actually for women’s cosmetics:
And finally, a exception from late 2007 with Jung Il-woo (정일우) that proves the rule: that wearing cosmetics=more hot sex with lots of women was not a theme of Korean commercials until — to the extent that there are international standards — very late in the development of metrosexuality compared to other countries:
Why is this significant? Well, because when I wondered in a previous post about why so few commercials for women’s cosmetics featured men — naively thinking attracting them was the sole reason women ever used them — I was very surprised and much impressed by Gomushin Girl’s answer (my emphasis):
…I think the main reason for male absence is the convention of putting the product itself in the ad. While some advertisements focus primarily on the made-up faces, most want to show the packaging and look of the product itself, be it lipstick, mascara, or what have you. This means that a lot of advertisements focus on the process of application, or the period just after the makeup has been put on. This process of being made up is strongly associated with the private sphere, and thus excludes men. Men are present when the results (fully made up and dressed) are there, and so can be part and parcel of clothing and other advertisements, but a make up advertisement needs to feature a woman in a private space, preparing herself for going into the public sphere. If the man were there, it would be subverting the purposes of her putting the makeup on in the first place.
And from which I now take away the conclusion that, very generally speaking, Korean cosmetic commercials for men are much closer to those of Korean (and Western) women’s cosmetics than they are of those of the “wear this and women will want to rape you” style that overwhelmingly dominate the equivalent ones Western men.
Why? We can speculate on any number of reasons. But whatever is ultimately responsible, I would argue that the difference shows that:
- Korean cosmetic companies were never in the driving seat behind the rise of metrosexuality in Korea over the last decade or so (which is not to say that they ever were in Western metrosexuality either)
- And that the development of Korean metrosexuality at least was always driven by and for women, and thus the manifestations of it in consumer culture have been heavily influenced by preexisting narratives in previously exclusively women-focused industries. Or in other words, it’s like cosmetic companies didn’t realize that they were actually supposed to be advertising to men now.
Both of which buttress(ed) my hypothesis in my thesis proposal…
Lest that sound a little abstract though, let me conclude by stressing that, just like you’d expect, Korean men always have and always will strive for appearances and modes of behavior that are most likely to get them laid. My thesis proposal was really just about some of the possible reasons why thee, well, requirements of Korean women for them to have a greater chance to do so changed in Korea in the late-1990s.
As for why those didn’t include wearing deodorant? Well, given that women didn’t themselves, then there was hardly the demand by them that men did. And I strongly suspect that it will be at least 10 years before a tipping point of deodorant-wearing Korean women is reached and it is seen as standard, after which men will increasingly be expected to wear it too,.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to have my parents send batches of cheap roll-ons from home every few months. But if you’re a single male in Korea? Then it sounds like it can’t harm to pamper yourself!