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Sexism Sells

2010 October 2

While the advertising industry has long manipulated sexual impulse into consumer interest, some recent advertisements have leapt beyond intimation and innuendo into outright equations of product procurement and inevitable sexual activity.  Oddly, the most vilified advertisements seem still to come from the fashion industry, which has worn sex on its sleeve for decades.  American Apparel is attacked almost relentlessly for its denigration of women, and rightly so, but its marketing is an extension of an old problem that has long plagued fashion photography (and at least the exploitation in this case is of consenting American employees, not voiceless foreign ones).  The amateur lighting and blatant sexual nature of the photos inevitably recalls low-budget pornography, as it is no doubt intended to do.  The clothes themselves are even, in some cases, translucent, revealing explicitly anything one would bother covering if they felt inclined.  Despite the heat, American Apparel has expanded exponentially since it went public in 2007.  Why?  Because it’s working.

Or at least it was.

The Los Angeles company recently announced impending bankruptcy after expected losses of 5 to 7 million dollars this past quarter.  No cause has yet been suggested (how much do they want for those shorts?), but it certainly can’t be attributed to a rise in youth prudery if the contemporary advertising trend is any indication.

For all of its (albeit strong) suggestion, American Apparel has always maintained within the bounds of intimation.  The girls in the photos, while always looking quite willing, are, after all, wearing women’s clothes (not to ignore the lesbian market).  While one may intimate that buying and wearing the corresponding male attire might attract the pictured girls, one may do only that.  This point may seem rather small and underhanded if it weren’t for a slew of abrasive campaigns that take American Apparel up on the sex it only ever hinted at.

Where sex once sold, sexism now sells, and just as well.

If one could accuse companies like American Apparel of sexism it would be based solely upon the extrapolation of intention (which might be more slippery if it wasn’t for the slipperiness of the company’s CEO, Dov Charney).  And while arguments for exploitation are easy to make in this case, there is at least one company who actually, intentionally uses sexism to sell its products.

AXE (a line of grooming products, apparently for undersexed white men) has bent its marketing toward the explicit exploitation of women as anxious sexual pets that discriminate, it seems, only by smell.  A glance at AXE’s website reveals its latest conquest of tact, the ‘Hair Action’ campaign, designed to sell hair gel to young men rendered sexually worthless by their own bad taste.  The description literally reads:

‘When a girl moves in close, inhales deeply and can’t resist playing with her guy’s hair, that’s Hair Action.  Girls like giving it…and it’s best when it leads to something more.’

Do they like giving it?  Hair action? This seems presumptuous.  And ‘best’ for whom, by the way?  Certainly not the girl, who up until her boyfriend swapped gel brands was apparently dating someone she otherwise found repulsive.

The ‘Hair Action’ campaign triumphed in its degradation last March when it debuted a commercial in which one attractive girl approaches another attractive girl between classes and says, index and middle fingers outheld, “Smell my finger.”  The latter attractive girl then inhales with relish and inquires, “Who is that?”  Revealed is some it-could-be-you guy with a sky-high cowlick who waves sheepishly at the pair of predictably anxious young gals.  Of course, the commercial concludes by informing us that, thanks to AXE’s superior hair styling product, our hero has gotten some ‘hair action’.  If the campaign delivers on its promise, the ‘hair action’ likely led to another kind of action, after which, we can only assume, he might have played out a similar, more familiar scene with another of his regular-looking buddies.  We don’t get to see what her cowlick looks like.

However, AXE, as promised, doesn’t stop at getting you head.  The Hair Action campaign followed one deemed ‘The AXE Effect’ (which still lends its title to the website’s domain name), which featured a commercial wherein an army’s worth of barely-clad, beautiful young women are seen running through thicket and over mountains to the distant ocean shore, upon which stands a rather average-looking fellow spraying himself gaily with some AXE product or other.  The ravenous women collapse upon him in a fit of olfactory ecstasy.  The punch line then reads, “Spray More, Get More: The AXE Effect.”  Apparently, women are so susceptible to the odor of AXE that they will compromise common social decency, regular vicinity to a replenished food supply, general health, an at least normally busy schedule, and any sense of self-respect to traverse the earth in search of the man who wears it.  Upon their arrival, they intend (if the brainless creatures they are depicted to be can effectively intend anything) to ravage the ‘lucky’ old boy with sexual favors that will seemingly last as long as they themselves can, which, as they have just demonstrated, is quite some time.

Amazingly, one of AXE’s newest campaigns outdoes its predecessors for sheer vulgarity and poor taste.  The campaign was launched along with a new product, ‘the Detailer’, designed, as the ad explicitly claims (many times), to ‘clean your balls’.  This allegation is wrapped in a metaphor so transparent it’s almost incorrect to call it one.  In the mock-infomercial (hosted by…two gorgeous women!), we are (not) misled to believe that we are talking about sports equipment, not testicles.  The commercial features such charming banter as: ‘How can guys clean their balls so they’re more enjoyable to play with?’ and, after finishing a demonstration on two ‘small’ golf balls, ‘Go ahead and play with those clean balls, Denise.’  Denise does – in case you were worried – for fifteen whole seconds before proudly proclaiming: ‘I could play with these balls all day!’  Later, an old man walks out from backstage and has his ‘old balls’ cleaned to ‘look like new’.  After all, as Denise’s co-host Monica proclaims, ‘No one wants to play with dirty equipment.’  I just hope our friend on the beach got word of the Detailer before the entire population of the world’s sexy women worked their way from his armpits down.

Thus far, what we have seen is a complete disregard for female humanity in order to sell some scented pit-spray and a hitherto uncalled-for testicle-cleaning assistant (does anyone truly need this?).  However, going almost completely unnoticed by normal, not-racist human beings everywhere was AXE’s pinnacle atrocity, which debuted in the fall of 2008 (and actually won an award at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival that same year).  This commercial uniquely combined sexism and racism in a feat of catastrophic indecency.  We watch as a (predictably) shirtless, average, scrawny young (white) man looks at himself disappointedly in the mirror before noticing a can of AXE’s latest by his side.  He picks it up, sprays himself, looks back in the mirror and…he’s BLACK.  He’s a black man.  His face bears the unmistakable marks of traditional blackface: bright, white eyes and a perpetual, unconvincing smile.

Now, the commercial commences to play this transformation off as though he’s been turned into chocolate, but with the ever-soulful Allen Toussaint (black) scoring the show and an array of helpless white girls dropping all tasks to chase our former-loser down the street, this one might be even more transparent than that for the ball-sack scrubber.  While the stuff does apparently smell like chocolate, the name itself suspiciously neglects the fact, calling itself instead, ‘Dark Temptation’.  There is thusly a triad of terrible misogynist assertions rampant here.  Firstly, the age-old AXE insult that a whiff of the spray will (literally) bend typically discerning women to any idiot’s sexual whim.  Secondly, if we decide to concede this devious, backhanded ‘chocolate’ foolishness we then trap ourselves into allowing another fallacious, demeaning myth to perpetuate: that women will bring themselves to lunacy over a bit of sugar.  Thirdly, if we don’t ignore every possible indication that this is not in fact the only oft-repeated falsehood at work, we must confront the unbridled racism and consequent sexism that pervades each one of the commercial’s 59 seconds.  I don’t think these humiliating fallacies need explication.

Disappointingly, other grooming-product companies have followed suit, though not quite as illustratively.  Old Spice has embarked on a campaign of masculinity in which a rather fit, mostly naked man does manly things while holding a stick of Old Spice and beckoning to your girlfriend.  He seems to be free of hoards of mindless women, but when he’s putting down your masculinity and appealing to your lady-friend (claiming he’s ‘the man your man could smell like’), his angle is just as obvious: rub this on your armpits and get fucked.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask for such commercials to at least allow for the possibility of gay consumers, especially after the prompt mass-forgetting of the 2007 Levi’s ad that did a bit more than hint at the existence of gay sexual attraction.  The conspicuous lack of basic decency when addressing issues of sex is childish and intolerable.  I fear companies like AXE and Old Spice get away with so much of it because they aim it at men anyhow and disguise it with a bit of cheap humor.  Their sense of humor is certainly able, but their sense of tact is awfully lacking.  Any potential humor loses its already rather piddling charm when each of the companies demonstrates their inability to distinguish real women from inflatable ones.  Yet, AXE continues to dominate its market and Old Spice has claimed one of the most successful viral marketing campaigns ever.

There have always been aspects of sexism in advertising – a consequence of trying to predict a target market – and it can certainly still be found outside of the male-hair-gel arena.  (Cleaning products still seem to be aimed at women, and one surprising Clorox ad that airs during episodes of AMC’s Mad Men – which infamously takes for its central characters a collection of dastardly, adulterous ’60s advertising executives – takes it so far as to show lipstick on the collar of a white men’s shirt before proclaiming that the product has been “getting ad guys out of hot water for generations”.  Who do they think is buying this bleach?)  However, the sexism coming from AXE and Old Spice is of a different breed – it is direct, honest and intentional in its misogyny – because, apparently, sex still sells, and when it’s paired with sexism its market power only increases.  One wonders who is buying these products after such appalling self-promotion.  One thusly must conclude that such blatant misogyny is either being overlooked or flatly ignored, and either explanation is equally as disappointing.

4 Responses
  1. October 4, 2010

    You know, i’m not really sure what most female deodorant and grooming product advertising is like. Is it similar? I actually spend more time watching sports, and therefore am bombarded with ads aimed at the 20-40-something male demogrpahic. (I’ll admit, I love the Degree commercial where the mountain biker loses his wheel and has to chase it.) How much sexism is there in women’s grooming product advertising? I still see a lot of sex: glimmering hair tossed about, bold lipsticks, etc. The last commercial I saw for women’s deodorant seemed to emphasize being perfectly beautiful and not sweating while doing a lot of hard work, particularly while wearing black, sleeveless shirts and desperately hoping there were no white deodorant spots flaking off.

    Just curious about your take. I suppose I’d have a better idea if I spent more time watching Lifetime and less time on ESPN/NESN, but there you have it.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      October 4, 2010


      After reading your comment I looked into a few such commercials (I don’t see many of them either, but then I watch virtually no television at all aside from Mad Men and the few shows I pick up every once in a while online). I remember from my television days that there were a few women’s shampoo commercials (I forget which at the moment) that got some attention for showing their users in a clearly orgasmic revery while using the product. These are obviously using sex, as you mention. Sexism (thankfully) seems a little more difficult for me to locate. Sex in a shampoo ad seems to me a bit uncalled-for, but it doesn’t get me too worked up. The deodorant commercials I looked at (like those you mention) seem, as you say, to get at avoiding getting white shit on one’s ‘little black dress’. Harmless enough, I’d say. One could perhaps extend this notion to ‘looking nice for a man’ but the commercials (at least those I saw) never took it so far themselves. I know I’d rather not get white shit all over my clothes either. I think the AXE ads throw me because I’ve never seen anything so blatant before. There isn’t any subtlety or innuendo. The problem is they aren’t just extending former trends to explicitness (more like what American Apparel has done), they’re actually passing into outright denigration. But as for the ads you mention, I think it’s certainly safe to say there’s a sort of ‘male gaze’ at work.

  2. Emilia permalink
    October 4, 2010

    I have always thought that the Old Spice commercials were intended as satirical attacks on ridiculous gender stereotypes. In particular, I think they’re attacking notions of masculinity that equate being a “real man” with superhero-like physical ability, sexual prowess and “sensitivity,” which of course rubs right against the ideas that women are emotion-driven creatures seeking romancing through gifts, who are able to be “swept off their feet” by feats of incredible physical/culinary/olfactory prowess, and who, ultimately, are seeking not a partnership, but to have all of their needs and desires effortlessly taken care of by their ubermensch, as is, naturally, their birthright as members of the fairer sex.

    The things the Old Spice guy is saying are the “truths” that ads have been feeding us our whole lives – they’re so familiar that those of us who haven’t been tuned in to gender politics have a hard time giving voice to them – but they’re wound just a little bit too tightly to be plausible. We can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous they are. I think they’re pointing out that no soap is going to make you or your partner more “manly,” and that the ideal of masculinity that exists in our society is utterly unattainable.

    Or maybe I’m giving them too much credit. But until I see evidence otherwise, I’m going to continue to enjoy them as subtly ingenious gender satire.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      October 4, 2010


      Let me first say that I have much less of an issue with the Old Spice ads. Perhaps they are ingenious gender satire after all, but I do worry about misogyny hiding behind the humor. He’s a wonderful actor and the writing is quick and sharp – they certainly know their comedy. They’re also certainly extending male stereotypes beyond plausibility. However, I think I merely come down on the opposite side to you – I suspect their motives and wonder they’ve just found a way to make their sexism funny. They’ve certainly been riding the ‘manly’ thing for some time. Here’s a ‘Manly Test’ ad they did a few years ago that uses a similar premise to the newer ads, but tones down the outlandishness a bit more. Funny, sure, but less simple for me to read. We certainly rarely hear them talking about the actual quality of their product (other than its ability to immediately grow hair on one’s chest). Here’s one completely void of gender stereotypes and starring a gay man (points):

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