Monday, February 8, 2016

Find Your Magic: How Axe Measures A Man

Like many, my primary motivation for watching the Superbowl is the advertisements. It’s the one time of year when viewers get a clear sense of what the marketing world believes will resonate with a global audience of over 100 million people.

Some ads are boldly self-aware, clearly winking at the audience as they offer a hook that has nothing to do with their product (the Walken Closet, Puppy Monkey Baby, and Shock Top). Others are informative, using the opportunity simply to get the word out (Pay Pal, Rocket Mortgage).

As much as I enjoy the overall creativity on display, it’s the socially conscious ads that reveal the most. This year, Colgate and Axe used the platform to make a statement about something they assume the audience takes seriously – or at least should. They don't just want us to buy a product; they want us to buy into a worldview.

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Axe got on the cultural map with ads featuring hyper-masculine stereotypes that either offended and amused depending on whom you asked. They’ve since turned over a new deodorant leaf: their new campaign attempts to broaden the masculinity tent with the “Find Your Magic” campaign.

Adweek likes how the ads “are “all about shedding traditional notions of masculinity and embracing one’s individual sense of how to be a man.” They quote an executive from the ad company as saying, “"With 'Find Your Magic,' we're out to liberate guys from pressure and bull****, and empower them to be the most attractive men they can be—themselves."  If you were watching the Superbowl, you saw Axe liberate men to be their most attractive manly selves by suggesting they do the following:

  • Celebrate big noses;
  • Wear nice suits without apology;
  • Dance in public;
  • Express their fiery personalities;
  • Crossdress boldly; 
  • Overcome handicaps (such as wheelchairs);
  • Do naked activism (or whatever was going on there); 
  • Meet other gay men in a vintage record store;
  • Make pizza;
  • Do math;
  • Be good in bed;
  • Grow huge beards and like kittens.
  • As for those bros who think six-pack abs make them a man? Ignore what Axe used to say and put a shirt on.

There is sense in which I agree with the heart of the message. Too often men are marginalized as weak or irrelevant because they don’t match arbitrary and often fickle cultural standards of masculinity. But in the midst of attempting to offer serious social commentary, Axe reveals a significant lack of clarity about their own topic of choice.

First, the ad notes the men are different in all kinds of ways. I’m not sure what follows from that glaringly obvious observation. If I am to take this commercial at face value, apparently what a man is reveals what it means to be a man. That's circular reasoning at its finest.

Let's give the ad the benefit of the doubt and assume it's attempting to say something more profound: whatever a man does is what a man ought to do. Yet this, too, is an irrational conclusion. I can think of lots of things that characterize the lives of men  – abuse, addiction, sexism, racism  – that diminish who they are men and ruin the lives of people around them. They don’t need to be liberated from pressure and expectation in those cases. They need to respond to it and conform to a standard that is higher than their own individual sense of how to be a man.

Second, I don't think the PC nod to the crossdressing/transgender community serves Axe's intended message. Wouldn’t a crossdressing man insist he is actually distancing himself from masculinity? Crossdressed or transgendered men don’t want to be the most attractive men they can be – they want to be the most attractive women they can be. That’s why Caitlyn Jenner got Woman of the Year. In order for Axe to be consistent, they would have to say that the best way for some men to be the most attractive man they can be is to be the most attractive woman they can be. And that's an incoherent way of viewing the world.

Third - and perhaps most importantly -  if the men in these ads are not courageous, honest, true, kind, bold, just, generous, pure, and self-controlled, none of their self-empowering, feel-good self-esteem matters. Only two of Axe’s examples (overcoming handicaps and treating women respectfully) even came close to displaying what we would think of as virtuous character traits. We laugh at the preening 6-pack-ab guy because we know looking good on a beach is a far cry from being a man.  But so is wearing a nice suit, dancing boldly, or being good in bed. You could be awesome at all those things and still be a tool.

The people in the ad certainly show what characterizes a variety of men, but they don’t show what makes a man a man in the deepest and most important sense of the word. Where were the men volunteering in soup kitchens, swinging their kids, rescuing people in distress, praying, celebrating anniversaries, building with Habitat for Humanity, volunteering with Big Brother/Big Sister – really, doing anything socially or morally redemptive?

That's where the best and deepest magic happens - in the purposeful expression of virtue. If that characterized men, I think the rest would fall into place.