2/04/2013 @ 5:07PM
Last night, during the Super Bowl, I watched the ad for Axe, the men’s grooming line. It featured a young woman saved from a shark by a handsome lifeguard, who subsequently ditches that lifeguard when a (male) astronaut turns up. “Nothing beats an astronaut,” the ad concludes.
The ad promotes a contest Axe is running to coincide with the launch of their new line of ‘Apollo’ products. The contest, open to anyone 18 and over, promises to send 22 winners to space. It’s a pretty simple message, but the ad campaign does a terrible job conveying it.
For one thing, of the 20 fans I was watching the game with, no one figured out that Axe was promoting a contest, as opposed to just their deodorant.
I happened to know about the contest already, because my friend Kate Arkless Gray, a journalist and producer in the U.K., entered it a few weeks ago, and she’s written a powerful blog post about the frustrating sexism of the contest’s marketing. In addition to the lifeguard spot, Kate notes, there is a similar scenario involving a woman saved from a fire who later abandons the fireman for a male astronaut. The images the contest website offers entrants are even worse: a beautiful woman swooning over a male astronaut, followed by her clothes strewn on the floor.
The ads fit in with Axe’s overall brand, of course, which is all about the prospect that using Axe will make men more attractive to women.
But while men are the only people who use Axe products, they are not the only people who can be astronauts, or the only people who may enter this contest. Women can enter too, and nowhere in these ads (or on the contest website) do we see a female astronaut. Even the tagline “Leave a man; return a hero” gives the impression that the contest is open to men only.
I explained the contest rules, and noted the sexism of this marketing, to my Super Bowl companions. Several people in the room said I was wrong, that with advertising like this and a men’s brand like Axe, the contest had to only be open to men. Some glibly suggested that a women’s brand could sponsor its own contest for female competitors.
They weren’t the only ones confused. WIRED, which covered the contest when it first launched, suggested in its write-up that the contest was for men only, and has issued no correction since:
>>Disclaimer: This is a product for guys that is running a competition aimed at attracting male consumers (probably in that lucrative 18-25 range). If you are not eligible to sign up, I’m sorry. I didn’t make up the rules.
But the contest terms and conditions say nothing of the sort. A U.K. spokesperson confirmed to Kate that women are welcome to compete, and a U.S. spokesperson confirmed the same to me just now.
So here’s the thing: The sexism of the marketing is offensive and damaging, given the gender gap in science and engineering and the discrimination women pursuing scientific careers already face. When an ad like the lifeguard spot airs in a time slot as high profile as the Super Bowl, and when a publication as prominent as WIRED suggests that space travel is for men, it matters.
But this campaign also fails as advertising. The product being advertised is the contest, but the ads discourage half the target audience (that is, people eligible to enter) from applying, and leave other viewers unaware that there’s a contest on at all.
When I spoke to Axe’s U.S. spokesperson Adam Bricault, he said, “We think the message is getting out there that this is for guys and girls.” He then claimed ignorance of the weeks-old stories, like WIRED’s, suggesting otherwise, but said he would look into requesting a correction now that I had alerted him.
It’s possible that Unilever, which owns Axe, is that incompetent when it comes to managing press coverage. It’s possible that they simply didn’t realize how off-putting the campaign would be to female competitors and are blindsided by the backlash. It’s even conceivable that the company is allowing misconceptions about who is eligible for the contest to circulate, with the intention of having a pool of male winners.
However you look at it – stupid, incompetent or dishonest – this campaign is remarkably bad business.