Axe is notorious for producing sexist ads that objectify women and portray them as non-entities whose actions can be controlled by a “masculine” scent. You know those ads with scantily clad women levitating towards a man all thanks to the Axe Effect. The message in their ads was always clear: use Axe, become a real man and women will come flocking. In addition to a sexist and misogynistic portrayal of women, Axe has a history of perpetuating a myopic idea of masculinity – white, straight with the sole purpose of attracting women.
Well, it seems the brand has made attempts to redeem itself. So, it seems…
Representation Gone Wrong
Last year, Axe launched a campaign that was aimed at redefining masculinity. “Stereotypical views of masculinity are changing and modern masculinity is taking centre stage. And that is why South Africa’s number one male fragrance brand is introducing a new Axe for a New Man.” The #FindYourMagic campaign is supposed to highlight the different shades of masculinity with the goal of looking at different types of men as opposed to focusing on a narrow definition of what it means to be a man.
Now, before we applaud Axe for trying to be more representative and less stereotypical, let us consider their SA brand ambassadors: Siya Biyela and entrepreneur and STRAIGHT man and, lastly, Dash, a hip hop artist, and STRAIGHT man. As great as these men are, they do not fully represent a shift in our understanding of masculinity. Once again, Axe has painted a picture of masculinity that is very exclusionary. Their choice of brand ambassadors contradicts the ostensible intension of their campaign to dismantle stereotypical notions of masculinity.
In their attempt at representation, Axe excludes the transgender males, queer males and gender non-conforming people who use their products. If the brand was serious about representation, they would have found brand ambassadors who represent all identities. The brand has thus failed in representing authentic modern masculinity.
At around the same time as the launch of Axe’s #FindYourMagic campaign, the brand’s parent company, Unilever, announced that they would do away with the sexist ads. But when you look at Axe’s recent ad (see below), you can’t help but feel confused and a bit deceived. “Do you ride dirty?”, the ad asks, showing a woman riding at the back of a bicycle being steered by a man, then zooms in on her buttocks. Next, we see two women being pleasured by man, followed by the statement, “Ladies say he’s multi-talented or is it your touch?” Again, we are presented with a masculinity that is centred around the domination of women in some form or another, sexual or social.
Axe’s masculinity seems to find its meaning in the objectification of women. The brand seems to be incapable of leaving women alone. Sexism seems to be Axe’s comfort zone. Additionally, the brand perpetuates a heteronormative understanding of masculinity, i.e. they are perpetuating the idea that real men can only be heterosexual. Again, they make no room for other forms of masculinity.
The brand is supposed to be encouraging men to reject rigid male stereotypes and embrace their individuality, yet it still perpetuates a one-dimensional masculinity in its advertising. It’s supposed to move away from sexist ads yet we see women being used as props to promote this exclusionary definition of a man. Axe, stop sending us mixed messages.
Getting one ad right does not make a brand progressive. If Axe is really committed to shifting the narrative around gender stereotypes, they need to be more critical of themselves. They seem to have gotten lost in the euphoria of the campaign idea and missed the mark completely. Axe needs to take a closer look at what is going on in society, listen to the conversations around gender and engage earnestly.
Moreover, this cannot be a one campaign thing, it must be a life-long commitment to changing the way the brand engages with consumers. If Axe is serious about changing the way they portray masculinity and women, we want to see a change in everything that they do, from the ads they make to the brand ambassadors that they choose.