They've been turned loose, and you're likely to smell them anywhere. If you've been in a middle or high school hallway recently, your nose...

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They’ve been turned loose, and you’re likely to smell them anywhere. If you’ve been in a middle or high school hallway recently, your nose has already been treated to the acrid pounding of Axe Deodorant.

But the rest of you, prepare. School’s out, and teenage boys doused in the stuff are walking the streets in clouds of odor. You don’t want to get closer than 50 feet.

If you’ve seen commercials or print ads for the product, you know it’s supposed to attract people rather than repel them. In particular, it is supposed to make young men irresistible to young women.

The manufacturers aren’t selling deodorant so much as they are selling sex and manliness, which is why the product is so popular with 12- and 13-year-olds, who haven’t quite got a grip on either of those things yet.

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These are kids who a year or so before behaved as if showering could be fatal and members of the opposite gender were poison.

Now they measure shower time in geologic spans and instant message each other rumors about who is sweet on whom, though this being the rap era their discussions are a bit more earthy than that.

So they were ripe (so to speak) for the Axe campaign.

Unilever introduced Axe to the United States market in 2002 with television commercials showing beautiful women attacking male mannequins that had been sprayed with Axe, which of course drove the women insane with desire.

It really is dangerous. Last month a 12-year-old Alaskan boy caught fire using the stuff. He’d sprayed himself, but the smell was overwhelming, so he lit a scented candle to cancel out some of the noxious fumes, and boom.

Makes you wonder: what happens when a bunch of Axed boys gather around a Bunsen burner in chemistry class?

Usually it’s just the odor that’s dangerous.

Kids at my son’s middle school had Axe fights between classes. No fatalities, but pee-yew.

More seriously, a couple of weeks ago, police in New Hampshire took a high-school student into custody for spraying a can of Axe while on his school bus. The mist sickened the driver, who had to stop the bus.

Axe, which comes in several scents, was formulated to be really strong so young guys would know they were getting something manly at the first whiff.

One of the folks in my dentist’s office told me about a sixth-grader who sprays Axe at girls. So far none of them has ripped his clothes off, though if he were to spray the wrong girl she might rip his ears off.

We banned the spray cans from our house, but my son started carrying the dry version around in his saxophone case.

“Are you still wearing Axe?”

“Axe?”

“Yes. Axe?”

“Uh. Yeah, but you can’t smell it. It’s just a little bit.”

Believe me, I can smell it, and worse, it makes my nose tingle. Walking into my son’s room makes me sneeze.

I only tolerate it because there are more important battles to fight and because I figure that, like most fads, this one won’t last too long.

Or at least not with any one kid. The Axe craze does have legs within a certain age group.

Two years after Unilever introduced the product in the U.S. it was the top selling male body spray, a category Unilever invented but that other deodorant makers jumped into immediately. Being a deodorant wasn’t enough. Being a cologne wasn’t enough. Users are supposed to cover themselves in Axe, and they do.

Unilever figured its target market, 18- to 24-year-old males, would be bored by ordinary TV commercials, so they decided not to be subtle. They pushed the limits on TV, and they’re taking advantage of young men’s love of the Internet to go even further. There’s an Axe Web site that is a tad more graphic than television, and the company expects young men to download video from the site and share it with friends, thus becoming agents of Unilever as well as consumers.

This week, on another Web site, Unilever debuted a game in which players compete for the attentions of 100 beautiful women.

Axe isn’t the only advertiser that is leaving subtlety behind. Remember all the attention the Carl’s Jr. commercial with Paris Hilton got?

Some folks in advertising are saying you have to take things up a notch to get the attention of young males today, and some trend watchers are saying it’s part of a broader backlash against so-called political correctness.

Either way, you might want to hold your nose.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. His column runs Thursdays and Sundays.