The body spray for metrosexuals.

Advertising deconstructed.
June 30 2003 11:00 AM

Calling All Metrosexuals

The new body spray for your feminine side.

Double-action Axe: Now you can be effeminate and piggish!
Double-action Axe: Now you can be effeminate and piggish!

Turns out there's a crisis in masculinity afoot. Not a new crisis, so much as the same crisis that comes along every couple of years, articulated by one of two questions: "Are men too manly?" or "Are men manly enough?" The latest rehashing of this issue is encapsulated in the term "metrosexual," entertainingly explored in a recent edition of the New York Times. According to Warren St. John's article, this is a term coined by writer Mark Simpson several years ago "to satirize what he saw as consumerism's toll on traditional masculinity." But recently marketers have repositioned the term to denote guys who are secure in their need for, say, skin moisturizer or body spray—"straight urban men willing, even eager, to embrace their feminine sides," as St. John puts it. (In some descriptions, the metrosexual idea seems to equate homosexuality with femininity in ways that suggest a Three's Company level of analysis, but leave that aside.) We may, the Times says, "be on the verge of a metrosexual moment."

What's a little startling about this is that it seems like only yesterday that we were still enthralled with the New Piggery of the Maxim cohort, which has mustered enough of a cultural presence to inspire an "unapologetically male" TV network. Is that over? To answer this question we turn to the marketing efforts in support of a body spray deodorantcalled Axe, apparently a prime example of a metrosexual product, and according to its maker, Unilever, "A stylish brand [that] boosts young men's confidence and attraction through the combination of a distinctive masculine fragrance and long-lasting deodorant protection."

Advertisement

An early series of Axe ads (see them here) featured a young woman standing next to a mannequin in front of a cheap-looking red velvet curtain. Each spot began the same way: She would explain that Axe is a body spray for men, and she'd spray some on the dummy. Then the "Axe effect" would kick in. In one ad, looking instantly intoxicated, the woman says, "Hey sailor" to the mannequin, and suddenly her boyfriend bursts into the frame and punches its head off. ("Doug! We were just talking!") In another, a second woman sidles up to the just-sprayed mannequin, causing the spokeswoman to drop her smiley facade and yell, "I KNOW YOU'RE NOT TOUCHING MY MANNEQUIN!" These are funny spots. And they're of a piece with a wide-ranging post-ironic trend in advertising, which is to make fun of the supposed effectiveness of the very product on offer. But they dodge the manliness question.

Some more recent Axe ads do not. In one, a hunky young bloke who hasn't finished buttoning up his shirt strides into an elevator. He sprays on some Axe, exits, and another guy—more of a square—gets on. Apparently the smell of Axe lingers in the air, because the attractive woman who steps in next finds herself drawn to the dork. It's the Axe Effect! She presses the emergency stop button. In the next shot, the doors open and apparently she's mauled him in a quick makeout session: She's straightening her dress, his hair is mussed and he looks dazed, etc. As the door starts to close, another woman approaches, and you can see in her eyes that Axe is working on her, too. A version of the ad with an alternate ending replaces the second woman with a bearish, leather-wearing gay stereotype.

Another ad features a series of attractive women addressing the camera and saying things like, "Hi, you're not late, it's—it's my watch, it's always fast," or "Of course you can have some money for a lap dance," or "She meant nothing to you? Well if you look at it that way, I forgive you," or the inevitable, "Can I ask you a question? Do you mind if my best friend joins us?" The idea is that they're so intoxicated by the Axe Effect that they'll behave like sniveling worms to hang onto the man who wears it. Again: It's all meant as a wink-and-nod joke.

Accompanying the Times story was a sidebar by Ginia Bellafante, who lamented the rise of moisturizing metrosexual masculinity and basically said that if men were men she would be glad of it. The interesting thing about the more recent Axe ads is that they seem to have this very concern in mind: Just because a man wears body spray doesn't mean he can't fantasize about women as easily manipulated objects (and laugh nervously at the scary gay man). You can be girly and a pig, watch a Pamela Anderson cartoon while doing your nails—and of course not really mean any of it. This reminds me of apartment shopping in Manhattan in the late 1990s: Yes, it's small, but it's expensive. Somebody comes out a winner in that transaction, but, man, it's not you.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Photos of the Crowds That Took Over NYC for the People’s Climate March

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

I Wrote a Novel Envisioning a Nigerian Space Program. Then I Learned Nigeria Actually Has One.

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 22 2014 9:39 AM Adrian Peterson Has a Terrible Contract, and Cutting Him Would Save the Vikings a Lot of Money
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 22 2014 9:12 AM What Is This Singaporean Road Sign Trying to Tell Us?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.