Sunday, April 22, 2018

Ode on a Double-Edged Razor

NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.


Sometimes when I’m feeling grateful for a consumer product, I am moved to write a poem. This is one of those times.

The Poem

Ode on a Double-Edged Razor

“Cheap bastard” is a name I wear with pride
And yet I cannot stand to buy cheap crap.                               2
I love that special product that provides
A point where worth and value overlap.
My razor’s made of stainless fucking steel
Instead of plastic formed in fancy shapes.                               6
My blades are double-edged—the real deal.
I might get nicked, I know—but never raped.
You know who needs expensive lubri-strips?
A bunch of soft and craven would-be men.                           10
These cartridge blades in trays like ammo-clips …
It’s shameful how Gillette is playing them.
    A Feather blade shaves close beyond compare
    Rewarding anyone who grows a pair.                                14

Footnotes & Commentary

Title: Ode on

Though I’ve titled several poems (like this one and this one) “Ode to...” I think it sounds more literary to title a poem “Ode on….” For details on this English-major-y nuance, click here.

Line 1 – cheap bastard

How is it possible to be cheap and yet insist on high-end products? For one thing, you buy as few things as possible. I select durable stuff and use it forever, so I forgo having the latest-and-greatest of anything. (My 2006 Volvo still feels new to me because I retired my old Volvo at 360,000 miles.) Even with my favorite hobby, cycling, I apply this use-what-you-got ethos. Though 11-speed gear clusters are now commonplace on bicycles, and a patent has been filed for 14-speed, I am still on 9-speed. The shift levers I use came out in 1996 but they still work great. Who needs all those gears? I’ll just pedal harder/faster.

Line 2 – cannot stand to buy

As detailed here I really don’t like buying anything. I pity the burglar who hits my house … in so many consumer product categories I am willfully bereft.

Line 4 – value

Remember when “value” simply meant “the monetary worth of something”? Now it’s commonly used as a euphemism for “budget” or “low-end.” Avoidance of embarrassment is often used to upsell people (a tactic that probably works best on poor folks).

Line 5 – stainless fucking steel

I try to keep this blog clean, but frankly no other word than “fucking” would make this phrase connote exactly what I want. Call it poetic license.

Because the blades are so much cheaper for old-school razors, you can splurge on a really nice one. I bought a Merkur razor, for $23, made in Germany. It’s beautifully built and has a nice heft. The curved steel part that holds the blade down is a nice big hunk of metal so it holds a lot of heat. I run hot water in the sink, lather up, then place the razor head-down in the water for a couple of minutes. (This gives the shaving cream time to soften my beard and skin.) When I shave, the warm steel head feels good against my face.

Look how nice the Merkur is:

Shouldn’t all the objects we engage with be well-made and attractive?

Line 6 – fancy shapes

I cannot understand why consumers—grown men and women!—continue to seem impressed by modern industry’s ability to shape plastic into very complicated and fanciful shapes. How is this impressive when cheap kids’ toys are similarly crafted? Look at this modern razor … it’s grotesque.

The women’s version (of course Gillette decided women need their own) is even worse … it looks like some Disney Cinderella-themed toy my daughters had at age four.

Look at this totally weird razor:

And, because nobody should ever have to shave with something blandly colored:

Line 7 – doubled-edged

By double-edged I mean a flat piece of steel with blades along two parallel edges, like this:

The alternative, of course, is a disposable head that has two, three, or more blades like this:

There’s actually no evidence that having more than one blade makes for a closer shave. Cecil Adams, his column The Straight Dope, denies there’s any benefit. That hasn’t stopped the Disposable Blade Industrial Complex from getting into a number-of-blades arms race. I guess it’s understandable; after all, the American consumer has trouble with complicated value propositions but anybody can understand the more-is-better idea. On top of that, Gillette has made a number of neat little videos showing how the front blade lifts a hair up, cuts most of it off, and leaves the rest sticking up so the next blade can cut it. Click here to see one of the first such simulations.

Oddly, this idea went uncontested for many years until 2005 when Gillette came out with the M3Power razor, an electric vibrating version of the Mach 3. It made the same claim about lifting hairs up to better cut them, via a new version of the video. A competitor cried foul and Gillette went on trial; a U.S. District Judge ruled that ads claiming this benefit were “unsubstantiated and inaccurate” and in fact “literally false.” The sheepish response from the Gillette spokesperson was that “the computer-generated image of the razor lifting hair away from the skin was never meant to be taken literally.”

Amusingly, mockery of the multiple-blade design brought about a life-imitates-art scenario. In 2004, The Onion presented a Commentary piece facetiously attributed to the CEO of Gillette titled, “Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades.” Here’s an excerpt: 
The Gillette Mach3 was the razor to own. Then the other guy came out with a three-blade razor. Were we scared? Hell, no. Because we hit back with a little thing called the Mach3Turbo. That's three blades and an aloe strip. For moisture. But you know what happened next? Shut up, I’m telling you what happened—the bastards went to four blades. Now we’re standing around with our cocks in our hands, selling three blades and a strip.
A couple years later, Gillette did come out with a five-blade razor, which is now their biggest seller. I guess there’s no end in sight; a South Korean company now has a six-blade razor. Look at this ridiculous thing:

The brand of that razor is Dorco; needless to say, they should spell it Dorko.

The traditional double-edged blade, meanwhile, has an undeniable benefit over modern blades: you don’t need to rinse your razor as often while shaving. You do four or five strokes, then spin the razor handle 180 degrees and do four or five strokes with the second blade (i.e., the other side of the razor head). You spend only half as much time swishing your razor in the sink.

Line 8 – might get nicked

It’s been a long time since a company directly addressed the underlying reason people will spend more money on a fancier razor: fear of shaving cuts. Norelco ran a series of such ads in the early ‘70s, like this one:

Probably this tactic was abandoned because a) conventional wisdom is to accentuate the positive, and b) nobody wants to tell customers that they don’t have the skill to shave without cutting themselves. But that’s exactly what these modern blades are about: because the blades are held at a specific angle by the plastic head that slides along your skin, you don’t have to figure out this angle for yourself. It’s pretty close to idiot-proof (though I still did occasionally nick myself back when I used them).

Yes, the retro-style razor is a bit harder to use, especially at first. My first couple of shaves were a bit nerve-racking. It takes some practice to hold the razor at the right angle, and I did nick myself a few times during the first few weeks. But hey, it’s not like we never get a chance to practice! I reckon I’ve shaved upwards of 4,000 times in my life (not including my legs), and I’ll shave at least 7,000 more times if I live to 100. By now I’ve shaved around 400 times with my Merkur and I’ve gotten quite good at it.

Line 8 – but never raped

Are users of modern razors being raped? Well, in the sense of being robbed, I would say yes. If you buy replacement razor blades at the grocery store, you’ll pay over $5 apiece. Even in bulk online (e.g., Amazon), a Fusion blade runs about $24 for  an 8-count, i.e. $3 apiece. The cheapest online price I could find for a modern blade was the (now outdated) Mach3 15-count for $26, or $1.73 each. On the other hand, my favorite double-edged blades, the Japanese-made Feather, cost $23 for 100. So modern blades cost anywhere from 7 to 22 times as much as double-edged. That’s a total rip-off.

Line 9 – lubri-strip

The lubri-strip has got to be an even bigger bunch of bullshit than the multiple blades. I mean, think about it: you’re using shaving cream or gel that lubricates the crap out of your skin. How much lubrication are you going to get out of a little strip of plastic?

Oh, I’m sorry, did I say plastic? In this video a spokesperson wearing a lab coat and speaking with a foreign accent (so she must be an authority) explains, “[The lubri-strip] has a sponge-like structure that is infused with highly water-loving polymers called polyethylene glycols or PEGs.” And that’s not all: there are now two lubri-strips per head, one before and one after the blades! Amazing! Never mind that the strip still looks and feels like a wet piece of plastic, and nothing slippery is oozing out of it.

If you use a razor with a lubri-strip, and don’t get shaving rash, it’s tempting to assume the technology is legit. I’m reminded of a joke: this guy on a city bus, to the bemusement of other passengers, is reaching into an invisible imaginary box, lifting out fingerfuls of imaginary powder, and flinging them into the air. A passenger asks, “What are you doing?” The guy responds, “It’s to keep away lions!” The passenger protests, “But there are no lions on this bus!” To which the guy responds: “See? It’s working!”

Do I miss the lubri-strip of my old Gillette razors? Not a whit. I suspect shaving rash is a fake malady, like ring-around-the-collar. Or it’s an unfortunate idiosyncrasy of some people’s skin, for which there is no easy remedy.

Line 10 – soft and craven would-be men

Okay, I’ll confess this sounds kind of harsh and unenlightened. But if I’m going to appeal to people to switch to cheaper retro-style razors, I have to take the battle to Gillette’s turf. That is, I must directly combat all the marketing that’s aimed at men’s insecurities, or my arguments will be beside the point. The fact is, Gilette’s job is to coddle men with a foolproof, easy-to-use razor—Fisher Price Baby’s First Razor, they might as well call it—without seeming to. So they use all kinds of macho imagery in their ads, along with the slogan “The best a man can get.” A man, mind you. These razors aren’t for women. If a woman tried to use them—well, that would be a disaster, like if she tried to use his grill, or his power tools.

Check out this ad. In a minute flat you’ll see just about every manly role under the sun: running race, tux-clad wedding party, football game, Army training, baseball game, astronaut mission, father with baby, Wall Street trading, discus throw, and boxing. And check out this ad for the Mach3. It shows a fighter plane going so fast the damn wings come off, and then the canopy, and then the pilot’s helmet, eventually all we have left is the pilot—i.e., the man—and his razor. And a whole lot of testosterone.

The ad for the women’s Gillette Venus razor, here, has a slower, more muted soundtrack and a notable lack of explosions. I’m pretty sure the word “curves” would never appear in a Sensor or Mach3 ad. And there’s no tagline “The best a woman can get.” That notion somehow doesn’t work—it implies something unfair, like “The best she’s able to get” or “The best we’re willing to give her.”

Is there any way to market men’s razors without appealing to masculinity? Makers of traditional razors would have a hard time appealing to frugality (for fear, I suspect, of insulting their customers). Bic did do a campaign, way back, with celebrity John McEnroe—“ I don’t have to shave with a 20-cent bic … but I do!”—but I think that’s the exception that proves the rule.

What if Gillette or a competitor decided to use the ideal celebrity to endorse their razors? Who would that be? That’s an easy one—we’d look to the ultimate man’s man, a licensed-to-kill brute who’s also an epicure. I’m talking of course about James Bond, who has taken the sartorial lead in so many other areas (suits, watches, sunglasses, etc.). The problem is, it’s just not believable that he would shave with a cheesy plastic razor with a lubri-strip. If you don’t readily agree, just watch this clip.

Not only is Bond not worried about shaving nicks, he’s not worried about Moneypenny inadvertently cutting his throat … even though, earlier in the movie, she accidently shot him. Now there’s a real man.

Line 11 – like ammo clips

I can’t get over this firearm-themed cultural messaging. The razor comes in a little holder, and in the back is a place where a five-pack clip of blades—like a magazine—snaps in. Why the extra plastic? I’m sure you’re meant to feel like you’re loading a gun. It’s all very masculine, all very reassuring, to the point of thou doth protest too much.

Look, men, there’s no fighter plane, there’s no gun … it’s a razor designed to keep you from hurting yourself. It’s like those little plastic-dipped forks they give to babies.

Line 12 – how Gillette is playing them

The marketing strategy Gillette and its competitors have embraced is selling us a razor (or “razor system”) that will only take their proprietary and pricey blades. It’s lock-in, the same market force that has us (well, most of us) still typing on inefficient QWERTY keyboards. As Wikipedia notes, “With manufacturers frequently updating their shaving systems, consumers can become locked into buying their proprietary cartridges…. Subsequent to introducing the higher-priced Mach3 in 1998, Gillette’s blade sales realized a 50% increase, and profits increased in an otherwise mature market.” Show me a company’s huge increase in profits, and I’ll show you a lot of people getting ripped off.

Incidentally, the latest innovation in razor blade marketing is Harry’s, which doesn’t charge as much for blades, but sells them on a subscription basis so you can never forget to change out your blades (i.e., you end up buying more than you really need). Harry’s advertises so aggressively online, I now see their ads on almost every page I visit, thanks to all my razor-themed Google searches.

Line 13 – Feather blade

I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert, but I’ve tried three brands of double-edged blade and I like Japanese-made Feather blades the best. They were recommended by a friend who has an English accent and thus all kinds of automatic cred. (I remember the exact conversation, years ago during a bike ride to the Hotsy Totsy club.) This guy’s dad had been into mining or something and traveled the world, and for a while had actual lackeys who would inherit his worn-out blades and sharpen them for their own use. My friend cautioned against getting caught up in the high-end retro shaving culture, which would have us mixing our own luxury shea-butter-infused shaving lather in a special purpose-built porcelain bowl, applying it to our faces with a beaver-hair brush, and buying an expensive silk dressing gown to wear while shaving.

Notwithstanding their traditional double-edged blades, Feather isn’t a totally old fashioned company. According to this timeline, they introduced a new blade as recently as 1995. (Actual new blades will naturally appear less frequently than gimmicks.) It’s not clear what was innovative about this blade; perhaps just some cool way of making it sharper. The Feather company makes scalpel blades, “microtome blades for pathology,” a “micro scalpel for ophthalmic surgery,” and a myringotomy (ear surgery) blade. So even if they don’t produce flashy videos to teach gullible consumers about polyethylene glycol lubri-strips, I reckon they’re experts at sharpening a very thin piece of stainless steel.

Line 13 – shaves close beyond compare

Believe it or not, the cheap, old-school razor blade does shave closer. I did a blind test to determine this. I shaved half my face with a Gillette Sensor3, and the other half with a double-edged Feather blade. Then I went to each of the three family members in my household and had them do a face-stroke test. All three ruled, without hesitation, that the smoother skin was on the Feather-shaved side of my face. And if their testimony isn’t good enough, just look at all the hair that the Gillette blade left on my face!

Naw, I’m just screwing with you. But the blind test was real. The results were unequivocal.

Line 14 – grows a pair

I’m not saying that it takes balls to face the risk of shaving cuts. Rather, it takes balls (not necessarily actual testicles, but nerve, basically, which is non-gender-specific) to overturn the conventional wisdom that all this fancy shaving technology is necessary or even beneficial.

Speaking of balls, I have to confess it’s kind of painful to think of them in the context of shaving. This goes back to my vasectomy—which saw me getting my scrotum dry-shaved with a 20-cent Bic. But that’s a whole other story.

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