Axe wants men to rethink masculinity, but can an ad really help?

Image: Ambar del moral / mashable

Is it OK to be a virgin? Is it OK to experiment with other guys? Is it OK to be the little spoon in bed?

These are just some of the questions that men ask themselves and Google when no one is looking, according to a new ad from Axe that aims to help “break the cycle of toxic masculinity.”

Don’t spit out your coffee just yet. Yes, this is the same Axe that once relished running ads portraying adult women as slaves to their senses and casting men as lonely losers until, that is, they doused themselves in Axe body spray, at which point the ladies came running.

Not anymore. The new “Is It OK for Guys?” spot is the latest installment of Axe’s “Find Your Magic” campaign, which launched last year by urging men to ditch macho stereotypes and embrace a more enlightened version of masculinity instead.

Now, Axe wants its customers to know they’re not alone in questioning the emotional straightjacket that is traditional manhood.

“What we wanted to do is show … that there is this habit of guys going online in the privacy of their own home asking all these questions,” says Rik Strubel, global vice president for Axe.

Axe is probably the last brand you’d expect to make this pivot. Yet, its unlikely trajectory from peddling sexist messages for profit to becoming a woke critic of machismo also for profit holds valuable lessons for the rest of us struggling to prevent, contain, and reverse the damage of toxic masculinity.

If Axe can take a hard look in the mirror and decide to change its retrograde ways, perhaps that unlikely transformation will inspire men skeptical of overhauling their own concept of what it means to be a man. Still, a woke advertising campaign is just that a glossy vision of social change that might give you the feels, but ultimately can’t destroy thousand-year-old ideas that are enjoying a resurgence in the form of Donald Trump’s strongman act.

Toxic masculinity is a popular phrase in academic and activist circles, but it’s not that hard to spot in pop culture if you know the signs. Consider Trump its prideful mascot: a man who can’t stand that one of his top surrogates is mocked by a woman on Saturday Night Live, tosses off suggestions about killing the families of terrorists, says nothing when crowds of people chant “lock her up” about Hillary Clinton, and bullies anyone who questions his authority, even a Gold Star dad.

Toxic masculinity is what happens when traits traditionally associated with male identity strength, stoicism, aggression are put into overdrive, often in pursuit of personal or professional power. While it might be appealing to Trump and some of his supporters, hyper-masculine doesn’t sell like it once did in the consumer marketplace, and Axe knows that.

“What we’re seeing now is that society has changed and marketing has to change,” says Strubel. “It was time for the brand to move on.”

“What we’re seeing now is that society has changed and marketing has to change. It was time for the brand to move on.”

Indeed. Axe’s parent company Unilever, which also owns the body positivity-obsessed brand Dove, announced last year that it would root out sexist stereotypes from all of its campaigns. Axe is also building partnerships with three different nonprofit organizations Promundo, The Representation Project, and Ditch the Label that fight harmful gender stereotypes.

Later this year, those groups will coordinate to seed the internet with content optimized to reach men with resources when they Google questions about concerns like mental health issues or bullying. Axe will do something similar for men who turn to the internet with shame-filled questions about grooming. It’s a savvy play to win new customers, but also speaks to the homophobia men can experience when they start using grooming products.

Axe won’t stand for that anymore, and it’s telling customers they shouldn’t either.

That’s a great start to dismantling macho attitudes, but last year’s presidential campaign proved that toxic masculinity is still alive, well, and even wins at the voting booth.

“It’s very, very difficult for any sort of campaign to overtake and overpower the ideological force of toxic masculinity, which is coming from the most powerful pulpit in this country,” says Ibram Kendi, an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida and author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

And then there’s Axe’s rallying cry: Damn the critics and be yourself. That’s an effective line for personal empowerment, but it also gives consumers the warm glow of feeling like they’re champions of equality without having to do much work understanding the many ways in which society condones or rejects a man’s expression of masculinity based on his race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

What we need to understand, says Kendi, is the way bigotries intersect to create a “massive hierarchy” among men. So Axe can successfully raise awareness about toxic masculinity, but sympathetic consumers still might not insist on every man’s liberation from damaging stereotypes if it means they can keep their place in the pecking order.

Getting to the heart of that struggle is much harder than producing a provocative 30-second or minute-long commercial that goes viral.

Over the past year, however, not every battle was lost. Public pressure on Fox News to fire accused sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly another epitome of toxic masculinity with his violent, racist on-air outbursts and father-knows-best politics led to his dismissal last month. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is finally being forced to account and atone for a hostile management style that contributed to internal sexual harassment claims and potentially illegal business tactics.

Meanwhile, there are promising examples of what masculinity can be when not constrained by antiquated ideas. When a crying Jimmy Kimmel devoted a recent monologue to the diagnosis and treatment of his newborn son’s unexpected congenital heart defect, he acted like a normal human being with perfectly reasonable emotions and drew awareness to both a life-threatening medical condition and the political battle over health care reform.

“It’s not our dad’s manhood anymore. There’s a lot more acceptance.”

The second season of Aziz Ansari‘s Netflix series Master of None is a revelation of masculine vulnerability. Ansari’s character Dev may be heartbroken and lonely, but he doesn’t need to conquer other women to feel better about himself. Instead, he seeks connection with someone he can call his equal. Dev’s friendship with a character named Arnold is an exploration of male affection; they tend to each other’s feelings without a second thought.

Examples like these, contrasted with daily exercises in toxic masculinity from Trump and his enablers, hint at a culture wrestling with its own identity.

“Its not our dads manhood anymore,” says Gary Barker, president and CEO of Promundo, a nonprofit organization that engages men and boys in gender equality. “There’s a lot more acceptance … but the other side of that, that tough guy manhood, that is frighteningly alive as well.”

That split is clear in research recently published by Promundo and Axe. Roughly a quarter of male American survey respondents said men shouldn’t have to do household chores and should, if necessary, use violence to get respect. Those ratios are still too high, but feel less apocalyptic than the percentage of American men who believed, for example, that guys should be breadwinners and should know where his wife or girlfriend is at all times (44 and 46 percent, respectively).

Barker and Strubel know a lot of hard work remains to shift the way men think about their masculinity, and that’s why they’re continuing to track their evolving views through research. But Barker is optimistic about Axe’s unexpected contribution to these efforts. As just one front in the sprawling fight to break down toxic masculinity, an advertising campaign that has the potential to reach millions isn’t a small thing.

Plus, Barker believes the fact that Axe sought redemption for its past sins is actually a selling point.

“I think they’ve got a dramatic story,” he says of the brand. “If they can do it … man in the White House, heres your chance, too. Look, you can turn the page, and it’s a happy place to be.”

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