A friend once described his teenaged son’s bedroom as smelling like farts, pot and Axe Body Spray. That pretty much captures both the cologne’s consumer base and its potency. Its noxious popularity among adolescent boys has driven several schools in North America to ban it. One grade seven student in New Brunswick with cystic fibrosis had a violent reaction to a classmate’s Axe-related funk — “I couldn’t breathe. My ears were ringing and I was shaking and I had a fever,” she reported — while some overzealous spritzing set off a fire alarm in a Connecticut high school.
Though targeted to dudes in their 20s, Axe became the go-to scent for adolescents through its cheeky commercials showing scrawny nerds snaring hot babes. Some of those ads verge on the creepy, likening the effect of Axe to a dose of rohypnol chased with a shot of Spanish Fly. (Post-Cosby, this motif feels all the more tasteless.) A whiff of Axe has the power to miraculously rip a blanket off the bikini-clad body of a sleeping woman and transform another woman’s terrifying home invasion into a consensual meet-cute. Other ads are just plain weird, like one in which a man made of chocolate is eaten alive by hordes of zombie-like females.
But after years of spinning tired male fantasies, Axe has embraced a more enlightened vision of masculinity. A print ad with the tagline “Be the sexiest you in the world” features two androgynous male models leaning in for a kiss, while a new commercial spot called “Find Your Magic” is a fantasia of hip, meme-age signifiers: beards, kittens, vinyl records, artisanal pizza, radical protest, vintage fashion, gender fluidity, oral sex and irony.
The clever spot opens on a skinny guy with a large schnozz mocking the idea that a man needs a six-pack to be attractive (his date, however, is model-pretty; some things never change). It goes on to show a man in high heels engaged in a fierce drag-ball battle, another pair of men flirting in a record store, a guy in a wheelchair dancing with his girlfriend, and a woman having a seriously good time in bed.
“There’s not one single-minded, one dimensional idea of masculinity out there,” Carlo Cavallone, the executive creative director of 72andSunny Amsterdam, the company behind the campaign, told the publication AdAge. “We wanted to make it as inclusive as possible. We wanted to give to guys a sense of confidence and liberate them from stereotypical bullshit about what it means to be a man.”
It’s a swift 180 from Axe’s previous branding, which didn’t invent but certainly shovelled a whole lot of that “stereotypical bullshit.” While this new campaign maintains Axe’s bro-ish swagger, it seems to have taken a page from its sister company Dove (both are owned by Unilever), a brand that’s long promoted a message of love-yourself empowerment. The old Axe encouraged geeks to overcome their awkwardness with a misting of body spray. The new Axe tells geeks they are cool and sexy just the way they are.
Axe’s rebranding is interesting, but it isn’t revolutionary: It’s merely following the broader culture as it continues to up-end gender roles and sexual identities. And the new message may have far less to do with loosening the bonds of masculinity than it does with hanging on to a share of a rapidly expanding and increasingly competitive male-grooming market, projected to reach US$ 43.6 billion in annual sales by 2020.
But that in and of itself is a sign of changing times: Millennial and Gen Z guys don’t consider it unmanly to invest hours and dollars in primping. So while the original Axe ads countered the feminine — read: gay — associations of cosmetics and grooming with over-the-top hyper-heterosexual scenarios, the new campaign exists in more liberated and open-minded world. Young men no longer have to follow the old rules of what it means to be a man.
More columns by Rachel Giese:
Women attacked in Cologne don’t deserve to be political pawns
Sorry, but women should not be sorry about saying sorry
What we need to learn from the life and death of Tina Fontaine