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She-change for Axe

Andrew Adam Newman 

Since its introduction in the US in 2002, Axe, the body spray and grooming brand by Unilever, has been pitched squarely at young men, with commercials depicting women getting a whiff of Axe users and then aggressively pursuing them.

But now, Axe is introducing a fragrance for women.

The new scent, Anarchy, is being marketed in different versions for men and women. As its name portends, a new commercial depicts a scene of mayhem, with a chain of events including a car pileup. During the spot, strangers lock eyes and, oblivious to the commotion, walk hungrily toward one another, then freeze at about an arm’s length, nostrils flaring and chests heaving, not breaking the sexual tension with contact.

“Unleash the chaos,” says screen text at the close of the commercial, as a young man and woman spray their torsos. “New Axe Anarchy for him and for her.”

The campaign, which includes print and online ads, is by the London office of Bartle Bogle Hegarty. The first of two commercials appeared on Axe’s Facebook page on Tuesday, and both are scheduled to begin running widely on television in the US on January 29, and afterward in more than 60 other countries. (A teaser commercial that did not specifically mention the women’s product began running online and in movie theaters on January 1.

Axe also will soon introduce a branded serialized graphic novel on YouTube and Facebook in a partnership with the publisher Aspen Comics. New sequences will be uploaded every few days, with plot turns based partly on consumers’ suggestions and votes, and with some fans being depicted in the comic.

Axe, which declined to disclose the cost of the campaign, spent $92.5 million on domestic advertising in 2010, and $42.8 million in the first nine months of 2011, according to Kantar Media, which is owned by WPP.

In another new commercial, a female police officer chases a male robber on foot, both tossing off layers of clothing in the heat of the chase. It ends with them facing each other, the robber having shed his stolen goods and the officer her gun, then walking toward each other to embrace in the middle of the screen. The new commercials are about “subverting expectations of what an Axe commercial is,” said David Kolbusz, a creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London. “Before, an Axe commercial was always about a guy spraying himself and a girl being attracted, and Axe giving him an edge in the mating game, whereas now women also have something to spray on themselves, and consequently there’s more of an equilibrium between the sexes.”

Of Axe’s 2.3 million “likes” on Facebook, about a quarter are by women, according to Barret Roberts, the senior brand manager at Axe.

“We’ve been hearing for some time that females have been asking for and looking for their very own scent of Axe,” said Mr. Roberts.

Axe dominates the men’s body spray category, with a 74 percent share of the market, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a market research firm.

For Axe Anarchy, the women’s body spray is being released in what Unilever calls a limited edition, with it possibly being offered permanently based on sales. On the men’s side only, in addition to the body spray, Anarchy also will be available as a deodorant, antiperspirant, shower gel and shampoo.

While over the last decade the women in Axe ads who throw themselves at men have consistently been stunning, the men have tended to be more average-looking, the message to male consumers being that the fragrances would attract women who would otherwise be out of their league. In the new commercials, the actresses are no less attractive, but are not sold so short: some male actors have the chiseled features of GQ models.

Axe “is the first brand that I can think of that made the teenaged boy a hero in a way that was interesting,” said David Vinjamuri, author of “Accidental Branding” and an adjunct professor of at New York University.

“If you’re a teenaged boy and you looked at the advertising, you saw the girl that you want and the guy that you are,” Mr. Vinjamuri said. “What was brilliant about Axe is they said make the girl hunt you based on your smell.”

@ The New York Times

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First Published: Fri, January 13 2012. 00:03 IST