Catalonian secession, the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, and Democrat Harvey Weinstein’s wiener have distracted us from the most pressing issue of the moment. I write, of course, of the proverbial “elephant in the room”—Axe Deodorant’s recent ad campaign.
Now, the Axe Deodorant of my youth, and of our collective young manhood and womanhood, was an avowedly “edgy” brand. The typical Axe commercial progressed like so: a 20-year old skater punk working at a fast-food place would apply Axe, immersing himself in the pungent mist ejected from its spray can. In a matter of minutes, a crowd of frenzied nubile women would burst onto the scene and violently tear his clothes off. The message was clear and written in stark capital letters: AXE = SEX. Here’s another typical example:
Most guys of my generation will likely recall high school locker rooms filled with an acrid haze of Axe, generated by morons attempting to blind each other with the spray.
But that Axe, the cheerfully dumb Axe that blatantly but sensibly used sex to sell deodorant, is no more. For a while now, Axe has been taking a markedly different tack in its commercials, and it is a tragic commentary on our times.
Axe’s current ad campaign features a shirtless male lead who uses Axe to address his deficient sense of manhood. After spraying Axe, he gingerly touches his armpit. The commercial’s off-screen female narrator asks him in a mildly disgusted tone, “Why are you touching your armpit?”
Eager to ingratiate himself with the invisible owner of this imperious voice, he replies, “I was just checking to see if it was dry.” The narrator responds, with a tone of now-heightened repulsion, “Don’t. That’s weird.” He looks vaguely abashed. Then, the commercial ends.
The Deodorant for Wimps
The star of this ad looks like he follows all the rules and will do whatever an off-stage narrator’s voice tells him to do. He has none of the former Axe skater punk hero’s idiotic but life-affirming verve. He exists merely to be chided and slightly humiliated—like this is some sort of weird porn for masochistic men who get off on having women tell them they’re gross.
He’s even denied a slight degree of muscle tone or a life-affirming, Falstaffian beer belly. Every feature that could possibly imply that he is self-reliant and formidable is missing. He merely stands there in a cold, clinical, and modern apartment, the scene of his (figurative) castration.
Now, why would Axe deodorant shift its messaging so drastically? The ad says, effectively, “If you want to be a weenie, try Axe!” It is consciously stylizing itself as the deodorant for wimps. Since this cannot be a winning ad campaign, we need to consider what greater cultural trends are forcing Axe to make this apparently insane marketing decision. The answer, it seems, lies in the corporate Left’s misguided belief that male vulnerability is sexy.
Liberals Champion the Vulnerable Man
It is not the height of liberal fashion to be an Axe-using skater punk who just wants a bunch of ladies to rip his clothes off. That’s too “toxic.” Admittedly, it is not the same as being an actually toxic dude like Weinstein or Bill Cosby, but it’s still part of the same solar system. Conversely, it is allegedly hip and trendy and “woke” to be a man with a soupy emotional core—a man who, for example, is afraid of spiders and unwinds at the end of the day by knitting a comfy set of mittens for his pet cat.
These days, you’re not supposed to be tough. You’re supposed to be “vulnerable.” That’s what our cultural commissars want to pretend the woman of today looks for in a man: vulnerability. It’s quite a batty conceit.
Vulnerability is appropriate on specific occasions that truly demand it: telling your spouse about how your parents died in a freak hot air balloon accident, attending your parents’ funeral after said accident, and saying a prayer for the peace and repose of your dead parents. In moments like these, sure, bring on the vulnerability. But vulnerability should not be a constant mode of being. It has never been attractive to be a nervous and emotional livewire, eternally twitching with hurt feelings.
Yet among the cultural elite who produce deodorant commercials, you have to believe that this weak non-alternative to manhood is somehow marketable. Of course, as a mere individual, you know it is not. But you are pressured into imitating the mindless, lemming-like trudge of the people around you.
In fact, you are in much the same position as a shop owner in old Communist Czechoslovakia. The great dissident and later Czech President Vaclav Havel described how greengrocers in Prague would place signs reading, “Workers of the World, Unite!” in their shop windows. Havel referred to this phenomenon as “living within the lie.” No one felt the truth of this political sentiment or believed he was really living in a workers’ state. They were all participating in a society-wide, cultural lie to ensure their survival and perpetuate the illusion that their political system was sustainable. Of course, it wasn’t—just like Axe’s ad campaign isn’t.
We’re Lying to Ourselves, So Axe Has to Lie to Us Too
Because of this cultural lie about male vulnerability, Axe is forced to market a version of masculinity that no one actually desires. It seems obvious to say it, but being a wimp is unattractive. No one wants to be a wimp and no one wants to date a wimp.
This goes beyond “manhood” or “manliness”—it comes down to basic human toughness and Stoicism, admirable qualities distributed regardless of sex, gender, and orientation. Thomas Carlyle once said genius is the “transcendent capacity for taking trouble.” In Axe’s ad campaign, the opposite, anti-genius set of values reigns. We see humiliation and weakness triumph over the Good.
Yet we’re forced to pretend that, to be truly modern or post-modern, men and women need to abandon not only toughness but basic formidability. When Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh told “HBO Real Sports” he thought football was “the last bastion of hope for toughness in American males,” Bryant Gumbel reacted as though Harbaugh had said that Adolph Hitler had one helluva mustache.
This is because Gumbel was—and is—“living within the lie.” Male or female, we need to act like being able to deal with problems and process our emotions is uncool. Incapacity is where it’s at… Except that it isn’t.
So-called “men’s rights activists” claim to be fighting this cultural lie, but, in reality, they exemplify it. They profess to be ultra-manly, but their defining trait is actually their vulnerability and touchiness: they are the mirror image of stereotypical social justice warriors. There is nothing remotely formidable or confident about them. They are scared little boys who probably do need a matriarchy to boss them around.
‘A Man Who Owns Himself Doesn’t Need to Go Parade’
Self-help maestro Tony Robbins made a perceptive comment about all this in an interview with The Daily Beast. When asked what he thought about men’s rights activists, he responded, “What kind of guy is going to go out there and complain about his rights? A guy with no b-lls, that’s who’s going to do that! A man who owns himself doesn’t need to go parade this sh-t—he just goes and takes control of his life. I mean, come on. A masculine man is someone who will die for the woman that they love or die for their family—someone who cares so much that they’ll give, not someone who manipulates people to get what they want. That’s a boy.”
This has the simple eloquence of American folk wisdom. It applies not only to men but to humans in general. Without a doubt, Robbins’ talk of “b-lls” and taking “control” of your life set off alarm bells within the corridors of The Ministry of Truth. It’s a message that America needs to hear—especially the Stalinists in Axe’s ad department. Perhaps they do hear it: Axe is also running an ad featuring sexy salsa dancing, which must be a wavering acknowledgment that their other ad campaign sucks.
Nonetheless, we continue to live within the lie. As Bob Dylan put it, “Everything’s a little upside down / As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped / What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good / You find out when you’ve reached the top / You’re on the bottom.” Amen, Bob.