They're puzzling, arty, vaguely dirty and possibly funny—you can't be sure right away. What is clear about these outdoor still-lifes for Axe's body spray is that they are people-free. Each features a modern-but-foreign-seeming scene that begs for an explanation: a bed next to stacked-up cups of water, a couch on springs, a fridge full of whipped cream, an apartment door (5C) with a "Take a number" dispenser instead of a doorbell. The latter is an out-and-out clever graphic device. The others poke fun at sex-manual clichés, while also offering a visceral sense that (lots o') sex happens here—in the abstract, thank you.
Indeed, the genius of these "longer lasting Axe Effect" boards is that they show the product's supposed aftereffect (not the process) in a wildly exaggerated, cartoony, yet still cool way. And that's part of the secret of Axe's success—Diesel-type edge at Wal-Mart prices.
Introduced in the U.S. in 2002, Axe originated and now leads a new mass category—deodorant-cum-body spray. Body spray is different from its swingin' cologne-and-aftershave Rat-Pack forefathers (Brut, Old Spice, Canoe) in important ways: If a guy were to use the ancestral aftershave in the patented Axe "7" spray formation (under arm, across chest, under other arm, down torso) he'd snuff out an entire building just by showing up (like Bud Light's Mr. Way Too Much Cologne Wearer). Axe is also much cheaper ($4.99-ish) and therefore generally worn by teenage boys, not men.
Bartle Bogle Hegarty's 360-degree Axe marketing (print, TV, outdoor, viral games and films, events, etc.) is dead-on for its target, because it takes into account age compression (14-year-olds who want to act 21) and today's post-everything but still sex-saturated, Desperate Housewives-driven pop culture.
Indeed, in Axe country, the women are in the sexual driver's seat. Or are they? I guess the fantasy goes both ways. And that's why I like the billboards best: Each scene is set in a man's apartment, yes, but it's funnier if you imagine that the guy is overzealously preparing (like a really good Boy Scout) for something that never happens.
Back in 2002, the campaign first had to educate men about the product and how to use it—hence the TV spots with a woman demonstrating on a mannequin. But in each case the instructress went way beyond the expected techniques. In one spot she pulled off his arm by mistake and then hit herself repeatedly on her rear with it, crying, "I have been naughty!" The ads caught on, and Mr. Dummy (later named Quinn) became a celebrity in his own right, making TV appearances and writing a column for Playboy.com. (No show on Fox?)
Other marketers caught on, too. (The latest is Gillette's Tag—also one syllable, three letters, same black packaging and a tagline, "Consider yourself warned," with a near-twin sensibility.) But even before the onslaught, Axe kept upping the ante with new variations of fragrance and line extensions like shower gel and antiperspirant. And so did BBH. Enter Pitman, spokespit for the antiperspirant. A stump of a hairy armpit on Fred Flintstone feet, he was grotesque and vaguely obscene. I'm not big on erotic encounters with the disembodied, so PM totally grossed me out. But I could see the humor in the Playboy-style setups, including the one in which he's straddling a horse with his bikinied girlfriend behind him in the saddle. I'm sure the youngins loved it.
The slightly shocking brand identity is unmistakable in every piece of communication—including a current spot, "Residue," selling the longer-lasting scent. It shows women grasping, fondling and rubbing up against metal objects (a stapler, a wall, a frying pan, a toaster). Then an Axe man is seen spraying himself with the last of the can and throwing it in a recycling bin. It's a clever, beautifully shot and stylized spot that demands some thought (that's several lifetimes of long lasting!). I guess this is progress—30 years ago, women were shown in their kitchens, fondling blenders for real. But these languid, lovesick females aren't the sexual conquistadors of the other Axe ads. Unlike Desperate Housewives (which really overdoes the men-are-manipulable-losers angle), the message here is the power men have.
The shower gel is sold with the line "How dirty boys get clean." The spots are all great looking, and take clever scenarios and ratchet them up a notch to slightly uncomfortable levels. In one, a woman appears to be pole-dancing ("Get her off the pole!" as Chris Rock likes to put it). But she's sidling up to the drain pipe to be closer to the shower water going down the drain of the now-clean boy upstairs. In another, a plumber is shown cleaning an Axe user's bathtub drain—he pulls out an earring, a bra, etc. The final item is a whip.
In which way do men want to be whipped? It's quite a double-edged sword. No wonder men get baffled—women claim they want men to be more vulnerable and emotionally available, but then complain about the disappearance of "real men." And of course, the idea of nonstop come-ons from sex-crazed women is a big shared joke, except among the 15-year-old boys who are hoping against hope—and investing their videogame money on Axe. And for five bucks, they'll find out the truth—that they do smell better.
Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York
Executive creative director
Group creative director
Amee Shah, Phillip Bonnery, Nick Klinkert, John Hobbs
Matt Ian, Tom Kraemer, Peter Rosch
Lisa Gatto, Stacy Higgins
Joe Public, HSI Productions