After decades of spraying toxic masculinity, can Axe redeem itself?

“C’mon, a six-pack?” the male narrator coolly bemoans as two ripped dudes come to life in sky-high billboards. One of the men, his hands covered in boxing wraps, throws a lit match behind him. It’s fire-igniting worthy of Hollywood magic, complete with exploding car parts and a slow-motion walk. Not once does he look back.

Over the next minute, the narrator goes on to explain that you—and by you, he means “men”—don’t need this comical display of masculinity to be an impressive person. Why? Because you have your personality, your thing that makes you you—your “magic,” or so the slogan goes.

This brazen rejection of the chiseled male physique debuted nationally during Super Bowl 50. And it was an ad for Axe. Yes, Axe. The male grooming brand known for its pungent scents and ads that sold sex first had, it seems, turned over a new leaf.

Axe had pivoted from telling men that its product will make them attractive to telling men that they’re already attractive. These already attractive men are rocking dance floors in heels, caressing kittens in their beards, and coating their hands in flour to help in the kitchen. Instead of using Axe to magnetize women, Axe had become a magnifier of men’s great pre-existing (not necessarily physical) attributes. 

Axe, in other words, had become woke.

Or, at least it was trying to be.

This one-minute spot, known as Axe’s “Find Your Magic” campaign, is part of a greater shift in the company’s advertising and culture, one that’s taken several years of research and development, according to Rik Strubel, global vice president of Axe.

Strubel told the Daily Dot that Axe’s marketing had previously responded to “older” notions of masculinity, concepts typically seen as conforming to, and accepted by, general societal norms. But as the tides have shifted for men—as society has begun to reject the exhausted notions of traditional “macho” hyper-masculinity—so has Axe’s approach to targeting “their guy.”

“As a global lifestyle brand, we see it as our responsibility to use our platform and reach to help drive positive change and champion good,” Strubel said. “In fact, consumers today actually demand that, and as society changes, we’re committed to leading a celebration of a more modern and inclusive view of masculinity. We realize this means tackling very tough issues, including toxic masculinity.

“By championing individuality, self-acceptance, and self-expression,” he continued, “we want to encourage guys to be what they want, dress how they want, love who they want and live more freely … If we can shift this paradigm, we can help break the cycle of toxic masculinity and create a healthier, more equal world for both men and women.”

At the very least, this kind of rebranding, earnest or not, appears to be ahead of the curve when it comes to male-targeted marketing. For the 2016 Super Bowl, the year Axe released their first pivotal ad, brands including Michelob Ultra and Schick relied on traditional masculine messaging to show that men who use these products will receive the ultimate reward: a hot body, and therefore, a hot female companion. Axe was an outlier and has continued to confuse audiences attuned to its previous messaging.

But one commercial doesn’t erase decades of the internalized “toxic masculinity” that Stubel describes. So it makes you wonder: Are Axe’s new woke efforts too little too late?

 

The depths of toxic masculinity

“Toxic masculinity” is defined by the Representation Project, a nonprofit committed to challenging stereotypes in media representation, as a culture that values “‘masculine traits’ such as dominance, aggression, and control over ‘feminine traits,’ like empathy, care, collaboration.”

In everyday life, toxic masculinity manifests itself in its limitations for what is societally acceptable in performing “manhood.” Frequently repeated phrases such as “boys don’t cry” and “real men have chest hair” regulate the actions of boys and men while rejecting the idea that boys can show emotion and men can groom however they want.

“They’re tagging certain markers of masculinity in the way that they dress, in the way that they hold themselves, in the way that they converse, in the way that they position themselves physically in the world with others,” Beth E. Bukoski, a faculty affiliate at the University of Texas at Austin’s Women’s and Gender Studies Center, told the Daily Dot. “Do they hug people, or do they just shake hands? Do they do the ‘bro hug’?”

A bro-hug may seem harmless at best and eye-roll inducing at worst, but the mindset behind these performative behaviors is actually nothing short of “toxic.” A study out of Indiana University Bloomington and Nanyang Technological University found that men more likely to conform to traditionally masculine ideas (including self-reliance, power over women, and the pursuit of status) were more likely to experience depression, stress, body image issues, substance abuse, and negative social functioning. A Rutgers University study showed that men who held these beliefs were more likely to put off addressing medical issues, and men who subscribed to these ideals and had male doctors were less likely to be honest with that doctor about their health symptoms.

Compared to girls, boys are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, need medication, fail at school, binge drink, commit violent crimes, and commit suicide—a statistic that stems from how we socialize boys to be tough and to not show emotion, according to the Representation Project.

Even though we’ve made some progress against breadwinner machismo, late-aught attempts to allow boys to express themselves have been just as limiting. “Real men respect women,” and “real men wear pink” aren’t inherently negative statements. However, the phrasing of these ideals still perpetuates the idea that there’s a certain way to be a “real man” and reinforces the standards of masculinity as opposed to promoting empathy, care, and collaboration.

“There plenty of men in the world who are not particularly toxic, but I would argue who are not particularly well, either. There’s a really big middle ground of guys who are not intentionally doing bad things—they’re not raping people, they’re not out there committing violence—but, you know, they’re probably interrupting women more,” Bukoski said. “They’re probably ‘mansplaining’ sometimes. They’re probably discounting the perspectives of women in a variety of ways. They’re probably engaging in ‘locker room talk’ here and there.”

 

The noxious fumes of Axe seep into the millennial male psyche

For decades, Axe seized and contributed to this messaging. Its commercials depicted droves of thin women sprinting naked through the woods, like wolves searching for prey, attempting to sniff out a man who had just spritzed himself with Axe. These women, who had lost all sense of humanity, would belt out a ‘70s pornography-inspired mating call upon encountering an Axe brandisher. These women had pores, shirt buttons, and even nipples that would physically react to the mere sniff of Axe on a man.

 

John, a 27-year-old computer and design engineer—and one of handful of random millennial men the Daily Dot surveyed about Axe and masculinity—said he remembered a clear message from a specific Axe ad: “If you sprayed yourself with this specific scent you could get special attention from all the women around the world.”

Tate, a 21-year-old surveyed, put it bluntly: “If you use [Axe’s] products, you’ll be more sexually attractive to ANY woman you want.”

Axe (and, to be clear, its competitors—Old Spice, Irish Spring, Suave—as well as countless other brands, TV and movie franchises, musicians, celebrities, and more) told its targeted market, and boys far younger, that dominance over women was valuable in society, and that using their products would allow consumers to obtain that value. Their ads suggested that attracting women was an important, defining trait of being a man, instead of living authentically and letting companionship naturally follow. Their messaging reasoned that commanding and commodifying women’s bodies won’t just reward you with love, but with social status, and to do so is as simple as walking through a cloud of Axe’s “Clix.”

Dominic, 24, told the Daily Dot what he understood to be the core messages of a commercial spot called “Billions,” featuring the bouncing breasts of crazen bikini models, and a spot called “Touch,” in which Axe appears to give a man “Midas”-like powers over women’s bodies. “Axe has a magnetic effect [on] hot chicks, and can pretty much ‘open doors,’” Dominic told the Daily Dot. “Sex sells, and I’m sold.”

While Dominic isn’t exactly sure how much influence Axe had on him as a pre-teen, he said he felt music videos from artists such as Kanye West, Chris Brown, and Eminem influenced his perception of masculinity. Responding to society’s valuation of being “macho,” he would play sports, defend himself in “meaningless fights,” defy authority, and wear trendy clothes. “I wanted to be seen as strong, as a ‘bad boy,’ as trendy. In any case, I was just following the crowd. Doing what my friends did,” he told the Daily Dot. “If you sold me something that made me feel wanted, I would buy it.”

A 2004 report from the American Psychological Association’s task force on children and advertising found that advertising is “particularly” effective when associated with sex appeal and glamour. Though products such as Axe might appear to target older teens and young adults, findings from the Federal Trade Commission show that marketers are targeting young kids even when their products are geared toward people much older. For example, researchers found that R-rated movies, M-rated games, and music with “Parental Advisory” warnings had marketing plans geared toward underage children who were too young to engage in these products. The reason for this is perhaps most children younger than 7 to 8 don’t understand that commercials are intended to persuade, making them more susceptible to advertising pressures. Not to mention that by ages 6 or 7, kids have already ingested messages of gender bias and gender stereotypes.

In other words, when millennials like John, Dominic, and Tate were introduced to Axe, they were at an age when advertising had its greatest hold. In a video on the subject, Anita Sarkeesian, founder and executive director of educational nonprofit Feminist Frequency, said media plays a highly critical role in how children are socialized because it influences what they think society expects of their gender, and therefore how they should perform that gender.

“Youth may have a hard time recognizing that these commercials are teaching them what is expected, what is desired, and what is possible for their genders, for their careers, for love, relationships, and creative endeavors in the future,” Sarkeesian said. “These messages are so manipulative, deeply embedded, and carefully crafted that it’s even hard for us as adults to recognize them.”

That’s not to blame the entirety of gendered learning and gender bias on Axe’s existence—not even close. But Axe did exploit and reinforce those messages with the alleged knowledge that children would pick them up long before said children were aware they were doing so. You could say Axe was planting the seeds to make lifelong customers through its hypermasculine ads.

John said that being “macho” especially appealed to him in middle school and high school. He used Axe because he wanted girls to “throw themselves” at him like the women in the commercials. He donned brands such as Michael Jordan, Ralph Lauren Polo, and Tommy Hilfiger with his gold-plated cubic zirconia jewelry, and played physical contact sports. “I wore my bling, brand name clothing, and always had a fresh haircut. I would always play sports because that’s what men do. I always tried to have girls around me so I can look like a playa… The girls that I would only go for were the most popular at school,” he said. “I used to be shallow.”

John emphasizes “used to be.” In other words, perhaps toxic masculinity isn’t an incurable affliction.

Dr. Kate Pounders, a consumer psychologist and an assistant professor at UT Austin, told the Daily Dot that although children pick up gendered messaging at a young age, she doesn’t think it’s necessarily “too late” for them to change.

“Imagery of women being more passive compared to men, being portrayed in a more sexual manner, or traditional stereotypes of women in the media” is what Pounders says her students are used to seeing, and therefore “it doesn’t necessarily ring a bell that anything’s wrong with it until we talk about it.”

“Most guys, like most women, do not fit that very narrow portrayal of what is masculine, and I think what these [new] ads are successful at doing is reaching a really wide audience,” Pounders said of Axe’s rebranding. “I don’t think it would be effective for people over 35, or maybe their younger 30s, but [in class], the guys said they appreciated the different approach because they thought the approach [Axe] had been taking was just kind of ‘gross.’”

So if college kids are embracing more diverse ideas of manhood and millennials like John can outgrow his superficial adolescent influences, there might just be a glimmer of hope that Axe’s new messaging can chip away at the damage caused by toxic masculinity.

 

The Axe redemption tour might not be complete bulls**t

It’s not that Axe is necessarily pretending to be enlightened. According to Strubel himself, Axe, like many other brands with their fingers on the pulse of their targeted audience, develops its marketing to reflect cultural trends. But what Axe may be doing, surprisingly, is taking a responsible stab at empowerment capitalism.

Representation Project’s Director of Communications Cristina Escobar told the Daily Dot that Axe had reached out to the project prior to their “Find Your Magic” campaign’s 2016 premiere and asked them to be a partner. Through the partnership, Axe has allowed the project to bring The Mask You Live In, its 2014 film that explores the effects of toxic masculinity on young men and their actions, into more schools and communities.

Axe has also partnered with two other nongovernmental organizations—anti-bullying organization Ditch the Label and gender equality group Promundo. With the latter, Axe commissioned an international study of men across the U.S., the U.K., and Mexico to better understand the challenges they face today. Not only did the study focus groups include Black men and non-Black men of color, but men who identified as queer and transgender, too, reaffirming Strubel’s assertion that Axe is committed to championing inclusivity for all men. Axe also conducted a separate study of more than 3,500 men across 10 countries to better define their approach in addressing toxic masculinity.

Where Axe appears to be willing to do the work, the men we surveyed also appeared ready to listen. Some described “manliness” as being accountable, compassionate, self-aware, and self-secure, showing that they too value “empathy, care, collaboration,” the traditionally-feminine traits that “unwell” men are slow to accept and project.

“Manliness to me is an independent gentleman that can admit to both his weakness and strengths,” John said, adding that he considers himself to be “manly.” “A manly man is not too focused on their appearance but more on what they can help with or give.”

So maybe flipping the definition of “manly” on its head can happen. Maybe the millennials who sucked up Axe’s advertising (and fumes) in middle school will be OK after all. (Maybe it’s Gen-Xers who are in greater trouble.) And even if some are skeptical of buying into the rebranding, or cynical about a global corporation cashing in on a social justice movement, at least millennial men may be able to engage in an expansion of socially accepted masculinity influenced by Axe’s “woke” wake.

“Axe is this pivotal product in young men’s lives where they do this transition,” Representation Project’s Escobar said. “It’s a big deal, so if we can tie this transition to this whole healthy definition of masculinity instead of something retrograde, let’s do it. Let’s go 100 percent in and help shape a culture where everyone can fulfill human potential.”

Culture can’t be changed alone or overnight, but if advertisers helped get us into this gendered mess, maybe they can help us out—if they’re willing to do the work. “For us, it’s not about being perfect or having the perfect track record,” Escobar said about Axe and the brands her nonprofit works with. “If that’s your bar for who can participate, then no one is going to be able to participate.”

Samantha Grasso

Samantha Grasso

Samantha Grasso is a former IRL staff writer for the Daily Dot with a reporting emphasis on immigration. Her work has appeared on Los Angeles Magazine, Death And Taxes, Revelist, Texts From Last Night, Austin Monthly, and she has previously contributed to Texas Monthly.