As someone who watches a lot of sports, I have seen more than my fair share of advertisements targeted at promoting a certain, idealized version of manhood and masculinity. Whether it be for “manly” forms of alcohol such as beer or hard liquor—occasionally directly opposed to “softer,” more flavorful, “girly” drinks, or for a car that’s supposed to represent the real American man, there is a lot of gendered advertising in this country. Because I spend so much of my time watching stations such as ESPN, MLB Network, NBA TV, or live games on other channels, I get constantly bombarded with ads from companies who are well aware of the intersection between the viewers of that channel, and those who may be swayed to buy their product. At the same time, I feel that sometimes their target audience may not be me, who as a consumer, pays more attention to how issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. appear more than the average person. The demographic that they are looking for is the group of people who are impressionable enough to be swayed by the false reality presented in these commercials, rather than shake their heads at it, as I tend to do.
One of the most common form of ads that have stood out to me has been ads centered around how a person smells. Whether it be for body wash, body spray, deodorant, or soap, ideas of masculinity and femininity find themselves expressed in these ads in sometimes very subtle, and other times incredibly explicit ways. Obviously these products are important for general health and grooming, but the way that they are portrayed can range from very normal to extremely problematic.
Personally, I use body spray, because it does work well. Depending on the situation, it makes me smell better, which improves my self-confidence as well as attractiveness. At the same time, it by itself does not result in me becoming immediately irresistible, as the commercials tend to suggest. In one particularly ridiculous ad, a dumpster diver discovers AXE in the trash and sprays it on. Meanwhile, a woman in heels and a shirt that shows a good amount of cleavage hops out of her sports car, and is heading towards a biker with a perfect five o’clock shadow that she spots across the parking lot. As soon as the disheveled dumpster diver sprays himself with AXE, she stops dead in her tracks, and tries to figure out where the scent is coming from. Once she realizes the source, she immediately aborts her mission to pounce on a handsome biker, and instead changes course and turns to face the dumpster diver. After having a conniption, she finally advanced towards her new target, and the two started going at it.
In no uncertain terms, AXE is trying to say that no matter how you look, or your lifestyle—further reinforcing the idea that certain features are objectively more attractive than others—this body spray will turn you into a girl magnet. Aside from the obvious falsehood of that statement, there is a lot of heteronormativity embedded in this line of commercials. Throughout the many commercials throughout the years for AXE, Old Spice, the infamous Bod man fragrance and other odor-related products for men, the man in question is always attracting girls. This goes back to the idea of heterosexuality as the normal way, which Katz talks about in “The Invention of Heterosexuality.” By going through the history of how the perception of sexuality changed over time, from sex being used solely for reproductive purposes, to it being seen as pleasurable, while simultaneously affirming that the most acceptable way to view sex was between a man and a woman, Katz gives context to the society of heteronormativity that we currently live in. In these body odor-centric advertisements, there is always a chiseled, perfect looking man who is able to attract any girl he sees thanks to his scent. It’s always a girl, and it always follows the common idea that the males are the conquerors in sexual situations, which is an important factor in heteronormativity. Sexual encounters between men and women are generally seen as victories for the man, which is definitely supported by these ads. The general lack of reciprocation on the part of the man, as they prefer to sit back and enjoy their prize, just as the dumpster diver did in the above ad.
Traditionally, AXE body spray has featured some of the more problematic advertisements of any company in America, and it seems that they have become a lot more self aware—at least, for the purposes of this particular TV spot. They showed men with different fashion senses, different gender expressions—as exhibited by the man dancing in heels while scantily clad, displaying a less traditionally masculine version of manhood—lots of creativity and openness, which is a far cry from the rigid men that usually appear in these ads, and finally and most obviously, black people—black men and one black woman. The normal commercials focused on the most privileged groups: white, cisgendered, heterosexual males, but this one was supposed to be different. Rather than continuing the common progression of an AXE commercial, where an already traditionally very attractive white man instantly becomes entirely irresistible to women after a couple of sprays, the company moves away from that theme, and in fact, tries to attack the idea of the perfect male. The most important part of that sentence is, they tried. Ultimately, however, they failed.
I don’t think that this plan was successful on their part, because even though at first glance, it may appear as though they are going against some of the more ridiculous things to appear in their past commercials, and not implicitly policing body type, nor using female sexuality to drive interest in, they are still promoting heteronormativity, and simply don’t do enough work within the commercial to counteract their long history of problems in recent ads. The focus of the ad is still a man trying to impress a woman, despite all the other stuff that filled the bulk of the commercial. Even in that space, there was still a lot of the classic idea man trying to impress a woman by showing off his creativity and adventurousness. At its heart, it’s still an unnecessarily gendered, masculinized, and sexualized product that has almost no grounding in reality. It will take a lot more than just one ad, even though it does show off different races and gender expressions than usual, to undo previous ads. The fact that it stuck out to me so greatly that this was the first time that I had seen a minority in one of these commercials, or any version of humanity from a male that didn’t involve standing there and accepting all the women that inevitably came to him, speaks volumes.