As they're making their way through Target, the young women pass the deodorant aisle and see a display for Axe body spray, that scent of...

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As they’re making their way through Target, the young women pass the deodorant aisle and see a display for Axe body spray, that scent of choice for advertising-susceptible guys ages 18 to 24.

And suddenly, Oneika Richardson and her friends are overcome by a need to dance provocatively and to intone that cheesy ’70s porn-movie guitar riff Bom Chicka Wah Wah featured in the Axe TV commercials.

Then, they dissolve into laughter and eye-rolling.

No, these women haven’t been overcome by the manly Axe aroma. Nor are they making a feminist statement denouncing what many say are sexist and degrading images.

“I just find the ads cute and cheeky, honestly,” says Richardson. Yet she recognizes what critics and consumer watchdogs are calling the gender exploitation inherent in Axe’s series of commercials and Internet ads, with its slogan “Nice girls turn naughty.”

“The first time I saw them, I immediately laughed,” she admits, almost sheepishly.

That’s the thing about this advertising campaign: The ads can offend and entertain in equal measure.

But in the past three years, they’ve also been seen as proof by many that American advertising has pushed the envelope to the breaking point.

Last month, the consumer watchdog group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood began a letter-writing push to Axe’s parent company, Unilever, accusing it of sexism and hypocrisy.

Unilever is also the parent company of Dove, whose latest ad in its “Campaign for Real Beauty” upbraids sexploitation in advertising and tells parents to “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.”

Susan Linn, director of the consumer group and a professor at Harvard Medical School, says the letter-writing effort has spawned more than 2,000 e-mails to Unilever executives. “Unilever needs to have a consistent policy on how it treats women,” Linn says by phone from Cambridge, Mass.

“Either treat them the Dove way or the Axe way. Unilever has dismissed it as just a joke. But, in fact, advertising images have a powerful effect, even if people don’t realize it. Especially if they don’t realize it.”

In response to e-mailed questions, a statement from the company says that the ads are developed for comedic value and are “not meant to be taken literally.”

“The lighthearted humor behind our ads appeals to the guys who use Axe and, in many cases, to the women in their lives, as well,” the statement says. “We regularly test elements of our Axe campaign with young women, who share with us that they see these ads as clever. They get the joke.”

This much is certain: The commercials are helping sell tons of pungent deodorant. According to industry publication Brand Week, Axe had $71 million in sales in 2006, $50 million more than its nearest rival, Tag.

“I teach one media class of 140 [students],” says California State University, Sacramento instructor Timi Ross Poeppelman. “And every single one of them knows these ads, whether they like them or not. On that level, the ads work, regardless of what we think of them.”

There is a long history in advertising of using sex to sell products. Hai Karate cologne spots in the 1960s were a tamer precursor to the Axe commercials. And, more recently, the Miller Lite ad featuring scantily clad women wrestling in a pond ushered in a new era of explicitness.

But Axe has been in the crosshairs of critics who see a rapid increase in sex and sexism in advertising.

Lately, Axe has changed its focus from 30-second TV spots to long-form and “embedded” advertising in the MTV show “The Gamekillers.”

To pitch its “Vice” deodorant product, for instance, Axe three months ago shot a six-minute mock news documentary called “Scared Sweet,” in which women under the influence of Axe are “rehabilitated” in prison. Considerable sexual innuendo ensues, of course.

Sexism charges aside, Axe’s approach is widely perceived as a marketing success, says Bruce Vanden Burgh, a Michigan State University professor who specializes in advertising.

“The kids I teach are the target market for this product, and I think [Axe] has got them, dead on,” he says. “This is a very edgy generation when it comes to sex very out there. It’s different than previous generations, where there was more upfront feminism. So, the ads mirror their attitudes.”

But when it comes to fostering cross-gender understanding, Poeppelman doesn’t think much of the Axe campaign.

“They are degrading to both sexes,” she says. “It’s interesting how accepting we are of a female being objectified as a sex object. If you reversed that and had men acting like the [Axe] women do, people would say it’s horrible.”

So, what do young men think of the ads?

“I agree with the protests,” says Mikhail Chernyavsky, who writes a sex column for the Hornet, Sacramento State’s newspaper. “It’s presenting sexuality in only an animalistic view. And any educated individual is smart enough to know this is just a marketing ploy.”

And yet …

“Every [college] guy, if they put effort into how they look in the morning, will have Axe be another product in their basket of hair shampoos, conditioners and gel,” he acknowledges.

Industry experts concede that U.S. advertising has gotten considerably racier in recent years though it still lags behind Europe, where nudity in ads is widely tolerated and not necessarily salacious.

But how far can the envelope be pushed before it explodes?

“That’s a good question,” Poeppelman says. “In the ’50s, we didn’t want to see Elvis’ hips on TV. And now we’ve got Axe.”