Old Spice Red Zone body spray.

Advertising deconstructed.
Sept. 27 2004 1:46 PM

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Old Spice Red Zone body spray: slick product, humble approach.

"Overtime": Her guy smells awesome The Spot: Two guys are watching sports on television. In the foreground, we see their bored and annoyed girlfriends. When the game goes to overtime, the guys start jumping around like knuckleheads. One guy runs over to hug his gal in celebration. She gets a whiff of his Old Spice Red Zone body spray. "Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory," says the announcer. Suddenly the girlfriend drifts into reverie. We see a gauzy montage, as she remembers romantic moments with her man: riding a Ferris wheel, having a pillow fight, cooking pasta together. "How will you be remembered?" asks the announcer. As the guy rushes back to his game, stealing the girlfriend's can of soda along the way, she swoons: "He's so great." (Click the still to see the ad.)

Not long ago—though it seems like a different era—I was unfamiliar with the concept of "body sprays." Then Axe hit the market. Axe had those ads where a hot chick and a dorky guy are riding in an elevator and, because the guy smells like Axe, they have anonymous coitus. This was termed "The Axe Effect."

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

I associate Axe with that dark chapter in American history (I think it was last summer) when the only thing we could talk about was "metrosexuals." (I hate to dredge this up, but bear with me.)

Metrosexuality, as best I could tell, was about straight guys deciding it was cool to use poncey beauty products—because it would help them nail hot chicks. Axe Bodyspray was perhaps the most metrosexual product ever invented. While a few more recent Axe ads have departed from the young-guy-in-dark-suit aesthetic of our metrosexual summer (in one, a cheerleader stops a football game to aggressively mount a running back), Axe has never abandoned its central message. That message being: An ornate grooming regimen will get you laid.

It seems, on its surface, like an appealing pitch. But look at this new ad for Old Spice Red Zone body spray (a new product launched to compete with Axe). What intrigues me about this Old Spice ad is the comparative humility of its message. The Axe ads suggest that if you use Axe Bodyspray you will get crazy, spontaneous monkeysex. This Old Spice ad suggests that if you use Red Zone body spray your girlfriend will be fond of the way you smell and thus will harbor positive feelings toward you—even when you're acting like a knucklehead.

It's precisely this more straightforward, realistic approach that has led to a remarkable turnaround for Old Spice. First, a bit of brand history: Old Spice for Men debuted in 1938, and by the end of the 1970s it was the iconic scent of manly sex appeal: the whistling-sailor aftershave in the scrimshaw-looking bottle. But by 1990, when it was bought by Procter & Gamble, Old Spice had gotten a bit musty. The brand image had become less sexy and more "that stuff that smells like Grandpa."

Fast forward to 2004. Old Spice is currently No. 1 (just ahead of Right Guard) in the men's antiperspirant-deodorant category. It's had 10 straight years of growth. And, perhaps most amazingly, Old Spice is the No. 1 antiperspirant-deodorant among teenage boys. The brand somehow transformed itself from fuddy-duddy to whippersnapper.

The secret, in part, is not promising too much. "We always want to depict our guy in a real-life, realistic situation," says Old Spice brand manager Carl Stealey. "Guys are not always aspirational. They're not thinking, 'What if?' They want a product that works, and they want a consistent and trusting relationship with it. A lot of other products overpromise."

I'm pretty sure he's talking about Axe here. And he's got a point. When you promise spontaneous monkeysex, you run into a couple of problems. 1) You won't deliver on that promise. This leaves the customer disappointed and sours him on the brand. 2) Your image gets linked with the guy who is desperate to get laid and who needs some sort of magic potion to help him. Which is not a great image.

Besides, the research shows that for whatever reason, today's 12- to 24-year-old is in fact eager to try new grooming products. You don't need to overpromise. A realistic, straightforward, humbler approach is the better call. And while Axe is currently the best-selling spray on the market, I predict it won't be for long. The metrosexual's days are numbered.

Grade: B+. Wait, you say, this is all well and good, but I've never used a body spray in my life. I'm not even sure what it's for! Pitching me a body spray in a straightforward, realistic way … will still not get me to buy a body spray.

Well, that's because you're over 24, Grandpa. And the sad truth is these brands have given up on you. "Guys past 25 are pretty set in their regimen," says Stealey. "Although some older guys would still like to be in the 12-24 range. And these ads will still speak to them."

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