Axe has been inventing it’s own brand of expressionism ever since it came to South Africa and making a big stink among rivals because, unlike the rest it can smell our thoughts.

The business of spraying armpits is a mind-numbingly simple chore. Yet, it must be done for the greater good, giving a signal to the opposite sex that flashes, “Hey, we’re clean, date us.” It’s probably even simpler than that, but who cares about armpits when all we really care about is sex.

That primal drive is the secret behind Axe’s success, and their now-trademark way of turning an everyday product into a How-To guide for getting lucky. That’s what they’ve made you believe and they’ve been doing it with a smile since 2003. The visual subtlety in their TV ads alone stands testimony to that. Seriously, when last did you see a guy in an Axe ad actually mist his pits like it’s a habitual afterthought?

No sir, the Axe man targets his abs and mid-section before hitting the upper regions, all the while staring at his godliness in the mirror, transforming into everything the industry has been desperately trying to sell us all along: Mr Confidence. Yes, confidence and sex go hand-in-hand.

And it’s not as though Axe is kidding anyone. They probably know deodorant is an uninspired, almost tedious toiletry that’s bought steadily by men because, ho-hum, we must. It’s what marketing cokeheads call a “low involvement product,” so you’ve got to sell it with a promise of gratification. In this case, the idea is simple: you will get laid.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and over the years they’ve read their market right and done everything to push the boundaries of decency with the kind of ad campaigns that suggest cocky swagger, self-centredness and hair-splitting sexism are the way to go. The conservatives freak out (which we love) with every campaign, warning us that Axe is some kind of gateway gas to the dark, sexist impulses of the male psyche, and that using their product will make us carry out those sadistic fantasies. If only. It’s laughable, and they’re missing the objective. The ads are satirical fantasies that play to our awkwardness when trying to hook up with beautiful women. Every promo, be it TV or print, is treated with lunatic relish and enough mockery to make it funny, self-deprecating and right on the button.

The male South African audience isn’t a dumb one, but it likes being taken for a ride. Let’s take the print ad in 2003 as example. The fictitious Troy Palmer (geddit, Palmer) takes out a restraining order against six lustful lassies, to stop picking and pawing at his chest, flirting on the phone, and so on. Or how about Axe’s “Dark Temptation” campaign? That’s where the grinning chocolate dude struts the streets, handing out chunks of his sweet self to sugar- deprived ladies who lick their lips like Lolly Jackson pole-dancers. The message was crude, in
a self-assured way, plus the pansexual undertone was fascinating, giving a wink to a t-shirt often worn by male university students, which states: “Dip me in chocolate and feed me to the lesbians.” Gorgeous women, dark chocolate (virile black men), sugar-in-my-bowl, walking orgasms – the ad is an overloaded meme, and it’s incredible.

Just as smart was the
“What-What” promo. Shot
in the Daveyton township,
a young Axe-man goes out
to the pub. Then, while
walking home afterward
the neighbourhood “it”
lady zips past in her car,
gets a whiff of the Axe
and starts showing off
by doing doughnuts in the road. After that kind of display, obviously he gets in the car… Testosterone-fuelled? Err, yep, but again: on the money. SA men love women and cars (or rather the particular male market that Axe is targeting).

Axe then went to town on innuendo, shooting their loaded jargon all over the Axe “Jet” campaign, which promised local celebs and competition winners a flight to the party island of Ibiza, with flight attendants entertaining on board (pillow fights and hula hooping a given) and curling up with male travellers for afternoon snuggles. Even the campaign’s catchphrase “Get On; Get Off” was a nipple-rouser. The idea of taking off in that plane certainly strengthened their market positioning among the late teen and 20-something crowd, the geeks and the boykies.

Axe has stuck to the same game plan over
the years, balancing between the cheeky “Get a Girlfriend” publicity that circulated in newspapers as pseudo- articles, and the swinging- dick arrogance of Axe Excite’s “Fallen Angels.” This recent TV and print campaign, which centred on the notion of slightly lobotomised female angels raining down from the sky and falling all over themselves for
an average Joe wearing Axe, is OTT, if somewhat florid. But, trust the fire and damnation detractors (and there are plenty) to scream that the ad was blasphemous.

As is always the case with advertising, the line is there to be challenged and crossed. Are they going too far? Is it demeaning to women? No, not really. It’s super- sexy, sure, plus it has some pure PLAYBOY ersatz. The only people they’re really exploiting are the target audience. But that audience, like the ladies in the ads, doesn’t seem to mind at all. Just promise to keep anything sexy that moves coming.

By Damon Boyd
Published in Playboy SA January / February 2012