A rather aggressive frowning figure loomed out of the dark as I got off the bus, very in-my-face with his hand raised as if he was about to make a grab for my head and possibly break my neck. Closer examination indicated he was an aficionado of one of our more aggressive contact sports — and he was advertising Vaseline. Yes, Vaseline for men. Real men. Men who want “strong, resilient skin”. Strong and resilient, just like them.
It is not the oddity of advertising Vaseline to men that I would draw attention to. After all, men have been using the product to firm their skin for many years. What is paradoxical is that the substance which in women is able to give “softer, smoother skin” has been discovered to have precisely the opposite effect on men.
It must be true because a Mr Dallaglio is shown in the company’s web advertising posing in a manly fashion and slapping the stuff on his legs, surely the most exposed area of his body when indulging in his favourite sport and hence more likely to require strength and resilience than softness and smoothness. Perhaps an added advantage is that it allows the player to slip out of a flying tackle leaving the opponent flailing about in the mud clutching thin air.
So what is this amazing material with its, presumably, hormone-sensitive qualities? It is basically petroleum jelly, a sticky and hence unwanted byproduct of the oil industry, refined and patented in 1872. It is actually pretty inert, failing to react with most things — which makes its hormonal sensitivity all the more remarkable. What it sells on is its water repellant qualities, giving the skin a soft, smooth and slightly slimy feel. It is not absorbed by the skin. It just sits there repelling water until eventually it gets wiped off in the hurly-burly of life.
Serious (male) cyclists are presumably not recommended to use this product since the be all and end all of their existence is to have perfectly smooth and aerodynamic legs and it would be most unfortunate if the hormonal effect were to kick in and they ended up with more resilience than they required.
Vaseline is not the only substance that has been shown to have differential effects depending on who is consuming it. Notoriously Horlicks has among its constituents an ingredient that is able to differentiate on a racial basis: if you are white and living in the West it will have a calming soporific effect, ideal for bedtime; if you are young Indian, however, it aids alertness and sets you up in the morning for the hard day ahead.
In the case of Vaseline the actual products sold doubtless have all manner of good things in them as well as petrolatum — who knows, even some miracle substance that makes rugby players stronger and more resilient — but to all intents and purposes it’s just gunk, a waste product in search of a use. It’s inert, neutral quality allows it to be reinvented with a new image superimposed on its harmless, formless gloopiness.
If the makers wish to pursue the sporting link, though, I would suggest a good ploy would be to promote the smearing of Vaseline on the rugby balls themselves, making them stronger, more resilient — and much more fun to watch as players try to hang on to them in a maul.