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

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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.

WHEN SEX SELLS A LITTLE TOO MUCH

The campaign was an instant hit, and Axe quickly became the No. 1 male brand in the total antiperspirant/deodorant category, earning Unilever $71 million in sales in 2006 ($50 million more than its closest rival, Tag) and $186 million (excluding Walmart sales) in 2007, an increase of 14 percent from a year  earlier -- which was leagues ahead of its nearest rival. What's more, sales of the brand's other products shot up as well, because body sprays are often used as a "training fragrance," and if a young male cottons to a brand, he's more likely to buy other products from the same company (what we in the industry call "the halo effect").

However, the brand's early success soon began to backfire. The problem was, the ads had worked too well in persuading the Insecure Novices and Enthusiastic Novices to buy the product. Geeks and dorks everywhere were now buying Axe by the caseload, and it was hurting the brand's image. Eventually (in the United States, at least), to most high-school and college-age males, Axe had essentially become the brand for pathetic losers and, not surprisingly, sales took a huge hit.

Then Axe faced another big problem. Insecure high-school students had been so convincingly persuaded that Axe would make them sexually appealing that they began completely dousing themselves in it. According to CBC News, "Some boys have been dousing themselves in Axe, apparently believing commercials that show a young man applying the deodorant and being immediately hit on by beautiful women." It got to the point where the students were reeking so heavily of it that it was becoming a distraction at school. So much so that in Minnesota, school- district officials attempted to ban it, claiming that "the man spray has been abused, and the aerosol stench is a hazard for students and faculty."

Despite its few stumbles, the wild success of Axe's ad campaign just goes to show what can happen when a brand and its clever marketers probe and plug into our most private and deeply rooted sexual fantasies and desires. And it goes to show that these days, as ever, our most deeply seated sexual fantasies and desires can be some of the most powerful persuaders.

Excerpted from Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom, 2011. Published by Crown Business.

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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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