Can a Commercial Be Too Sexy For Its Own Good? Ask Axe

Going inside one of the most famously salacious TV ads of the last decade to learn how an iconic campaign gets made and why it's possible to sell too well

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Axe

In general, women tend to be more easily persuaded by ads that are more romantic than sexual, ones that emphasize commitment, devotion, and partnership. Not surprisingly, men, on the other hand, respond to sexual innuendo and women in bikinis, especially when the ads or commercials are leavened with a heaping dose of adolescent humor.

Axe, a line of men's personal-care products that includes deodorant body sprays, sticks, and roll-ons, and shampoos, is renowned in marketing circles for how it has craftily positioned its products as bottled pheromones -- magical potions that can transform the greasiest, scrawniest, most acne-prone schlub into a confident, gorgeous, chiseled sex magnet. The behind-the-scenes story of how Unilever created this now-legendary Axe campaign isn't just another demonstration of the power of sex in advertising; it's also a fascinating example of just how deeply companies and marketers probe the depths of our inner psyches -- our hopes, dreams, and daydreams -- in the service of crafting the kinds of provocative, scandalously sexual, and smashingly successful campaigns that push the very limits of advertising as we know it.

A LOVE POTION FOR NERVOUS TEENS

Unilever accompanied roughly 100 males (identical studies were later carried out across other European countries, North America, and Latin America) ages 15 to 50 to the pubs until three or four in the morning and (soberly, while secretly taking copious notes) watched them in action. After poring over their pages and pages of notes, via a process known in the industry as "segmentation," the Unilever team isolated six psychological profiles of the male animal -- and the potential Axe user: the Predator, the Natural Talent, the Marriage-Material Guy, Always the Friend, the Insecure Novice, and the Enthusiastic Novice.

Ultimately, they decided the most obvious choice would be the Insecure Novice, followed by the Enthusiastic Novice, followed by the Natural Talent. Why? Well, the first two segments, the marketers reasoned, with their lack of self-esteem and experience, could be easily persuaded that Axe would be the key to enhanced success with women -- they would spray it on to ramp up their self-confidence. The Natural Talent guys could probably be convinced to use Axe as a finishing touch before going out for a night on the town.

So with the Insecure Novice as the primary target, Axe came up with a series of 30-second TV commercials that preyed on what its research had revealed to be the ultimate male fantasy: to be irresistible to not just one but several sexy women. These ads were nothing short of marketing genius. In one 30-second spot, an army of bikini-clad female Amazons, drawn by the irresistible scent, storms an empty beach to surround and seduce a helpless, scrawny young male Axe user. In another, a naked, soapy young man is showering when suddenly the bathroom floor cracks and he tumbles (still naked and dripping with suds) into a basement filled with scantily clad young women who proceed to bump and grind lasciviously enough to make a porn star break out in hives. "No one wants to play with dirty equipment," intones a woman in another less-than-subtle Axe ad, before proceeding, with the help of an assistant --"Monica, can you help me with these dirty balls?" she asks -- to clean and fondle two white golf balls in her manicured hand. "If you spray it, they will come" is the suggestive promise of another ad, in which a pair of college-age women bodily drag a college-age geek into what is, presumably, a waiting boudoir. In yet another, a man sprays on Axe's Dark Temptation body spray, which immediately transforms him into a life-size piece of chocolate -- which a bevy of hot women off the street nibble at suggestively for the remainder of the 30-second spot. The message of each of these couldn't be clearer: use Axe and get laid. Repeatedly, by different women.

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Martin Lindstrom is a marketing consultant and he was voted one of the World's 100 Most Influential People of 2009 by Time magazine.

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