Was there ever a time more suited to the whims of a male American teen than the early aughts? The video game Grand Theft Auto III had just shipped. LimeWire made Shaggy’s entire discography free and accessible. Hollywood was bullish on Seann William Scott.
And then, in 2002, Axe arrived. A body spray meant to split the difference between deodorant and cologne, Axe bulldozed the senses with a fragrance so strong it seemed to precede the bodies it clung to — like Febreze, or a bad reputation. Almost 20 years later, it hasn’t managed to shake its association with the scent of middle school.
Its introduction to drugstore aisles was attended by a series of notorious ad campaigns built on naughty jokes and blunt promises, the crux of them involving a parade of women lusting after some schmo. Over the next decade, Axe evolved to include deodorant sticks, shower gels, and hair care. But even as its product line began to reflect the refined grooming habits and shifting sensibilities of the modern metrosexual man, its branding stuck to old-school attitudes about romance. In ads suggesting that its scents would overpower all resistance, Axe pitched itself as artillery for a perpetual battle of the sexes — the howitzer of attraction. It was a winning formula: Axe sold $71 million worth of bottled machismo in 2006, just four years after entering the US market.
Today, the iconic ad campaign feels fossilized, obsessed with a bygone vision of masculinity. (Axe rebranded in 2016, and although it still enjoys annual global revenues of more than $1 billion — comparable to a decade ago — it has posted year-over-year declines in the cultural cachet department.) Nevertheless, those 2000s-era commercials continue to notch thousands of views on YouTube. There’s the one in which an attractive spokeswoman spanks herself with the arm of a mannequin she just demo-sprayed. There’s the one with the guy made of chocolate who gets licked in a darkened movie theater.
Part of these ads’ charisma rests on misdirection. Axe would have anthropologists believe that its target audience was 20-something men for whom quick-draw sexual episodes were a semi-regular occurrence; in fact, the brand’s power user was a 13-year-old boy with a mom who humored him.
Glimpsed from the vantage point of the #MeToo era, Axe looks like a spasm of late patriarchy, but its legacy is complicated by the women who helped develop and champion it and the environment that teen boys fostered with it. To America’s horniest pubescents, it didn’t matter that the ads weren’t “real.” It only mattered that the body spray was. The scents smelled like what they had been told men should smell like: patchouli and sandalwood and musk; like Burt Reynolds in that famous Cosmo centerfold. That was the feeling of dousing your barren chest in two ounces of uncut manstank. If the sprays imparted that tiny bit of confidence, if they helped gangly tweens lurch their way toward adulthood, what was the harm? As it turns out, we’re still asking.
Axe was officially born in 1983, in France, under personal care behemoth Unilever, which launched the line with three original scents: Amber, Musk, and Spice. But the brand as we know it today was born 12 years later when the company handed advertising duties to hip London agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty in 1995. (For trademark reasons, Axe is called Lynx in the UK and a few other countries.) At the time, Axe had flattening sales and stale marketing that leaned on the kind of self-serious fragrance tropes — stock jazz tracks, square jawlines — “that you see in 101 different ads,” says Sir John Hegarty, BBH’s co-founder. The brand needed a facelift.
Hegarty and his team reasoned that Axe’s missing ingredient wasn’t sex, per se. It was irony. The brand was already gesturing, clumsily, toward seduction, but that only got you so far. Among a younger, savvier audience, the implication of sex wasn’t subversive; it was hackneyed. Nobody believed a body spray could single-handedly seal the deal for its wearer. Leaning into the absurdity of that proposition let BBH deliver its message with a fat wink.
“So we came up with this whole strategy about the Axe Effect, as though it was this amazing effect that once you spray it on, any woman would fall for you,” Hegarty said. “Which of course is nonsense.” The Axe Effect anchored ads for the next 20 years.
For the message to land, the guys had to be geeky, a bit socially deficient, and relatable — James Bond doesn’t need the Axe Effect. The women would be stunners. That was the joke: The starker the hotness differential, the more it beggared belief, the more clearly the ads would present as self-aware.
“Really, you were talking to 15- to 18-year-olds,” Hegarty said. “And you were talking to a group of kids who were emerging into adulthood who needed confidence. I mean, the background to all this is they were very insecure.” Suddenly a worldview coheres. The brand’s first commercial to use the strategy, which depicts an awkward young man at a cocktail party who turns suave as soon as he applies the spray, conjures a dystopian vision of adulthood. There are elaborate cocktails, freestanding pieces of art, finger foods. Axe promises not just to help boys get the girl, but to help them navigate a world that punishes inexperience.
Take as a given that teenage boys are deathly afraid of their perceived immaturity. Imagine or remember a world in which the opinions of your male friends and classmates were everything, and girls belonged to a mysterious order that you thought about constantly — and occasionally consulted — but whose value-add was theoretical. To be able to go to the drug store and spend a few bucks on a spray can that cleanly telegraphed a worldview that assured peers you wanted the same things they did: How could you not prize that kind of commodity?
“It’s the easiest possible way to try and become a man,” said Frank Karioris, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies masculinity. “It doesn’t take labor, it doesn’t take work, it doesn’t take money ... it just takes you using Axe.” He suggested that although the brand offered no real utility when it came to actually picking up women, its grammar of seduction helped affirm a sense of manliness — “particularly for teenage boys, who are told that having sex somehow is the thing that defines you being a man,” he said.
The ads changed a lot as Axe grew up, but certain elements stuck around to remind viewers who the product was really for, like the floppy haircuts and unripped torsos. The application ritual always involved an extended crop-dusting over the chest. Of course, Axe took liberties with its suggested volume. (“Spray more, get more,” read one straightforward tagline.) If your olfactory nerves were irreparably frayed, if you can still picture the fog of your junior high gym, blame the ritual, and the unstoppable appeal of a reusable prop for teenage boys to play-act manhood.
Targeting teens meant Axe was also targeting their mothers, who often did the grocery shopping, and who were among the most important stakeholders in their sons’ hygiene habits. The explicit nature of Axe’s branding, not to mention its infamous pungency, made an alliance between moms and Axe counterintuitive — until you were in the company of a sweaty 15-year-old. “I’ve got two sons,” said Rosie Arnold, a former BBH employee and the creative director on some of Axe’s most celebrated ads. “When people say, ‘Oh my God, doesn’t Axe or Lynx smell awful?’ I’m like, ‘Not as awful as teenage boys.’”
The brand counted girlfriends as another constituency and regularly tested its campaigns with young women, many of whom liked the ads. “I adored the Axe advertising,” said Cindy Gallop, the president of BBH New York during Axe’s stateside launch. “I thought it was fantastic, because it was absolutely on the right side of that line” between cheeky and profane.
And yet, in some ways, women were beside the point. One mid-aughts commercial featured Ben Affleck playing himself over the course of a regular day. As he walks around and does his errands, he tallies the number of women who check him out. At the end of the spot, Affleck enters a hotel elevator with a geeky blue-collar guy (played by a young Scoot McNairy) and the two compare their numbers. The joke is that McNairy, an impecunious nobody covered in Axe, gets 20 times the attention as an A-list Hollywood star — but the metajoke is that after 12 hours of female come-ons, both men are more concerned with homosocial posturing than actually getting lucky.
The ad lays bare Axe’s sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary messages. McNairy’s cartoonish success with women proves that when you have Axe, “You don’t need to be a good talker, you don’t need to be the most attractive, you don’t need to be wealthy, you don’t need to have the perfect job,” as Karioris put it. But his levered sexual capital isn’t spent on sex; instead, it’s used to extract respect from Affleck.
The same insecurity that powered the Axe Effect ultimately ate it from the inside. An existential threat was brewing — not within the FCC or bronchially besieged gym teachers, but something far more vital: sales. By 2013, the rate of global growth “had declined a little bit,” said Fernando Desouches, who was then Axe’s global brand development director. Unilever was forced to confront the possibility that the Axe Effect no longer resonated with adolescent dudes.
That year, the company conducted a study of more than 3,500 hundred men in 10 countries, poking at conceptions of masculinity and self-esteem. “When we talked to people, we realized that men were in a different place,” Desouches said. He had worked on Dove’s groundbreaking “Real Beauty” campaign and saw parallels in the socialscape. In describing them to me, he deployed a familiar word. If the Axe Effect was saying “that you’re not good enough — not attractive enough — until you wear a product that will make you attractive, this is not empowering.”
Other tectonic forces were at work, aptly summarized on Unilever’s website: “We know that the rules of attraction are changing and that it is about connection, not conquest.” Management had come around to the idea that women were not prizes to be won. Teens had, too, in their way. Plus, Axe had so relentlessly polished its image as a tool for the needy that it had started to become associated with them. “[T]o most high school and college-aged males, Axe had essentially become the brand for pathetic losers,” writes Martin Lindstrom in his book Brandwashed.
In 2016, Unilever introduced a new platform animated by the tagline “Find Your Magic.” This campaign treats empowerment as teleological: Young men are told to find what makes them special (there’s gotta be something) and learn how to flaunt it (whatever it is). The anthem commercial is strategic and sensible and well-made and doomed to fade from our collective memory like 99 percent of all marketing efforts. It might yet save Axe from stigma, but at the cost of the brand’s iconoclasm.
The architects of the Axe Effect, for their part, aren’t sure it needed saving at all — at least not the strategy that informed the original messaging. Like everything else related to sex and gender, the wake of Me Too brings new gravity to a frank discussion of Axe’s faults. “When it comes to the Me Too generation, of course you’ve got to be sensitive to that,” Hegarty said. “You can’t ignore it. You can’t be on the wrong side of the debate.” But he argued that seduction still ought to be respected. “Since the beginning of time, the guy who’s been able to seduce the girl is the one that wins out. And that isn’t going to change.”
Gallop maintains that Axe’s early advertising exploded taboos surrounding women’s libidos and should be viewed as a net positive. But didn’t the Axe Effect imply that men needn’t worry about impressing a woman on their own merits because Axe would hotwire a sexual outcome no matter what? She laughed.
“Good God, man, you are really overthinking this,” she said. “It’s only fucking advertising.”
Mac Schwerin is an advertising copywriter and freelance journalist. He lives in Singapore.