“Axe and Male Inadequacies” by Rachel Alexander is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at http://www.thewasofshall.com.
Originally published in 2009 as a mid-semester paper. I honestly can’t even remember the prompt, but it was something that involved a scholarly study of hot men and YouTube. (Because what else is there???)
The personal hygiene company Axe has been on the market for at least six or seven years now, focusing solely on men’s deodorant, body wash, and hair gel. Their tagline is, unselfconsciously, the ‘axe effect’: “the internationally recognized name for the increased attention Axe-wearing males receive from eager, and attractive, female pursuers” (“Questions and Comments”). Axe’s concept is simple: appeal to the one guaranteed item for which every youthful, attractive male spends all his time searching: an equally or more attractive youthful female who is solely interested in sex, doesn’t care about his body, and won’t nag, complain, or talk too much. All of Axe’s advertisements (including their print ads, TV commercials, and website) are geared toward this message, promoting Axe as the principal attraction factor of whoever happens to be wearing its scent. The actors in these ads are physically attractive in a typical ‘American’ way (read: white, hetero-normative, muscular) way; the women – who are undeniably attracted to the main protagonist in question, oftentimes with no control over their animalistic urges that surface because of Axe’s effect – are thin and beautiful; and, in each advertisement, clothes are ripped off or skin is exposed, and Axe becomes the single entity needed for such sexual success.
Two things are happening for Axe to be so successful: Axe is creating a need for their product and they are then promoting their product as the only answer to that need. Susan Bordo, in her work Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J., terms this advertising structure as the pedagogy of defect, a tool “in which [men] learn that various parts of their bodies are faulty [or] unacceptable” and then buy a company’s product to fix their now prevalent faults (37). Even though Axe juxtaposes the characteristics of socially awkward men with the physical bodies that are most associated with women’s sexual fantasies, the most understood message of any Axe advertisement is the ability of an Axe product to magically transform a male who is not getting any dates into someone who is heavily pursued by women looking to have sex with him. By smelling Axe, a woman might suddenly forget that its wearer has no long-term goals, is out of the cultural loop, or is selfishly attached to his video games (as well as forgetting that her role in their resulting relationship is more than just a pleasure provider who looks good naked). As a result, men wear Axe (even if they don’t look like a typical Axe character) because it will get them laid and women are subconsciously drawn to Axe because of the typical Axe character depicted in such ads.
Something worth noting, however, is the casting Axe does for its advertisements. From what I can remember, every Axe wearer depicted in print is a white (except in one commercial, “Bom Chicka Wah Wah”) twenty-something with the canon of masculinity – broad shoulders, a tall and lean frame, six-pack abdominals, no visible chest or back hair, and a highly pleasing face. If only Axe seems to make these men attractive, then what possible chance does a male who appears nothing like this standard (whether that’s because of physical attractiveness, height, weight, skin color, sexual orientation, or level of ‘American’ qualities) have? Axe answers its own question with their most recent commercial, “Axe Hair Crisis Relief,” in which ‘international male models’ don ridiculous wigs before trying to pick up females. The result is hilarious if not totally mortifying for someone who has been in a similar situation, and the narrator ends by saying, “If these gorgeous guys can’t pick up girls because of their hair, what chance do you have?” (Axe). The commercial could be about any aspect of the physical image and the answer would still be ‘no chance at all,’ especially if the object is ‘girl approved hair’ – only another sexist layer Axe adds to their campaign. What isn’t ‘girl-approved hair,’ and why only girl-approved? (I have no idea how many consumers actually realize Axe’s blatant portrayals of hetero-normative behavior.)
Bordo acknowledges that advertisers have problems in promoting their product to a wide range of individuals while still garnering the most sales. A dilemma, Bordo notes, that becomes “compounded because many of these products perform… ‘normalization.’ That is, they function to screen out diversity and perpetuate social norms, often connected to race and gender” (30). While this idea serves as an explanation, it doesn’t excuse profits. Just because sociocultural history has proven a certain beauty type to be most satisfying across gender and race lines does not mean that is the only type advertisers can use to sell products – especially not within the current cultural landscape which is more diverse than ever. All Axe is accomplishing is a steady stream of self-defeating thoughts in its viewer – a state that pushes an Axe product from a general want (I use body wash in my shower and like this scent) to a very specific need (I want to get laid by a hot woman; using Axe will get me laid by a hot woman).
The resulting success of Axe’s marketing campaign is typically high because they have found what works and are exploiting the model. Bordo terms this “the Rocky model of success… one of ‘making it’ in a world that remains unchanged while the hero… transforms [him]self to meet – and perhaps even surpass – the requirements of that world” (63). Maybe one can’t drastically change one’s physical appearance, but one can buy Axe and change the reaction to that appearance. The simple act of buying and using Axe’s products produces instantly attainable, ‘girl-approved’ results.
Bordo, Susan. Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
Nikihuey. “Niki Huey in AXE Hair Crisis Relief Commercial.” YouTube. YouTube, LLC, 16 Jan. 2009. Web. 6 Sept. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SybHYrFnjqc>
“Questions and Comments.” Axe. Unilever United States, Inc., n.d. Web. 6 Sept. 2012.