The Cutting Edge

The way things look.
May 7 1998 3:30 AM

The Cutting Edge

Gillette's Mach 3 razor may be flashy, but it works.

46000_46325_1packaging

Back in the mid-1950s, Detroit's Big Three automakers saw they had a problem. Nearly everyone had a car, and the population wasn't growing. The only way to keep making money was to make each automobile more expensive and more profitable. The goal, their mantra went, was not to sell more cars but to sell more car.

The marketing strategy was to link automobiles to the glamour and speed of the supersonic jet fighter planes that the Navy and Air Force had introduced in 1953 and 1954. Their swept-wing and delta-wing designs were sharp yet curvy--a quality that was abstracted into the parabolic, boomerang shapes that started to turn up on objects such as ballpoint pens and surfaces such as Formica. In 1955, Chrysler adopted a double boomerang corporate logo to symbolize what it called "the forward look." By the end of the decade, American cars were banana splits on wheels, dripping with the extraneous decoration that stylists called "gorp."

Flash forward to 1998. Gillette dominates the global shaving market. Like Alexander the Great--a Gillette hero because he demanded that his soldiers shave--the Boston-based company has no new worlds to conquer. Yet its lofty stock price assumes continued growth.

The solution: not to sell more razors but to sell more razor. The $750 million result: the triple-blade Mach 3. Its name means three times the speed of sound. The three blades on the head look appealingly like a tiny Venetian blind--an image emblazoned on the package like a scene from a 1950s noir movie. The plastic package is also embossed with parabolas, and the razor itself is festooned with them. Starting in August, a $300 million advertising campaign will show jet pilots breaking the sound barrier--and then being magically transported to their bathrooms, where they'll enjoy the quickest, slickest shave in history.

And, yes, Gillette plans to charge 35 percent more for it than for its previous top-of-the-line product, the Sensor Excel. By 2000, Gillette has told analysts, the profit margin on each Mach 3 replacement cartridge will reach 50 percent.

46000_46326_2razorhead

I t's like 1956 all over again, only smaller.

Yet the Mach 3 is not the sort of retro design that evokes bygone imagery of progress with self-conscious irony. Unlike the lounge music revival, it's aimed not at a hip coterie but at Everyman.

The Mach 3 razor appears to be a sincere attempt to embody progress. For the last quarter century or so, designers have not made this a high priority. Products have evoked cool (Ray Ban sunglasses) or competence (Sub Zero refrigerators), upper-class aspirations (Ralph Lauren home furnishings) or adolescent rebellion (just about any snowboard). Few have tried to communicate that things are actually getting better, as the Mach 3 does.

The immediate reaction: a lower stock price for Gillette and quite a few jokes.

There is, on the face of it, something ridiculous about a three-blade razor. Gillette introduced the twin-blade Trac II razor in 1972, and three years later, Saturday Night Live ran a parody of a three-blade model. It featured an animation sequence that showed the second blade cutting what the first one missed and the third getting even closer. The tag line: "Because you'll believe anything."

So is this Mach 3 an improvement or a mockery of consumer gullibility? The product itself won't be in stores until summer, so it's way too early to know how the shaving public will respond. I do know that a couple of mornings with the Mach 3 has just about wiped the smirk off my face. The damned thing works.

Just as the promotional copy promises, I am able to shave with fewer strokes. This shortens an unpleasant activity and spares me those final touch-up strokes that often leave me bleeding.

Since its first safety razor almost a century ago, Gillette has always conceived the actual razor mainly as an inducement for selling replacement blades. Mach 3 represents the culmination of this trend; it's mainly the cartridge that's been upgraded.

Gillette claims 35 improvements beyond the extra blade. Some--such as a colored strip to indicate when the blade needs replacing--are aimed more at beefing up the profit margin than at improving the shave. But others--such as thinner-edged blades with hard coatings and individual, spring-loaded pivots for each blade (with the Sensor, the two blades pivot together)--may, for all I know, be responsible for the razor's improved performance.

46000_46327_3razor

T he razor's body is, functionally, just a handle. But it still needs to communicate that the Mach 3 is worth the extra cost. So Gillette is touting the rubberized boomerangs on its top and bottom as gripping aids, to keep it from slipping in your hands, even though the parallel ridges on the Sensor line probably work about as well. The difference is all in the styling.

Most of the improvements in the Mach 3--the tiny springs and metallurgical manipulations--aren't even visible to the casual shopper. Like the microchip and the altered gene, they fall beneath the threshold of visual perception. With its outward imagery, Gillette is trying to evoke a midcentury aesthetic of progress identified with military might, brute force, and speed. And yet while the Mach 3 looks like a throwback to a time when progress took a back seat to empty stylistic gestures, deep down inside, the razor really does represent an advance.

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