Sexism in deo ads: Not new to Indian market

What started with Axe in the 90s seems to be a never-ending partnership

e4m by Mansi Sharma
Published: Jun 7, 2022 8:58 AM  | 5 min read
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A bare-chested man sits up in the bed talking on his phone – sheets to his hips an empty bottle of wine sitting near his bed – and the dialogue runs:

 

“Hello?”

“You snore.”

“And you steal all the covers. What time did you leave?”

“Six-thirty. You looked like a toppled Greek statue lying there. Only some tourist had swiped your fig leaf. I was tempted to wake you up.”

“I miss you already.”

“You’re going to miss something else. Have you looked in the bathroom yet?”

“Why?”

“I took your bottle of Paco Rabanne cologne.”

“What on earth are you going to do with it…give it to a secret lover you’ve got stashed away in San Francisco?”

“I’m going to take some and rub it on my body when I go to bed tonight. And then I’m going to remember every little thing about you…and last night.”

“Do you know what your voice is doing to me?

“You aren’t the only one with imagination. I’ve got to go; they’re calling my flight. I’ll be back Tuesday. Can I bring you anything?”

“My Paco Rabanne. And a fig leaf.”

 

Paco Rabanne – A cologne for men. What is remembered is up to you.

This is a double-page ad spread in 1985 America, created by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, is a perfect reflection of the sensual history of cologne and deodorant advertising in the world. The category in the west was created on the backbone of sexual fantasies and turning men into chick magnets.

A similar trend came to India a little more than a decade later than this ad when HUL launched Axe deodorants in the country in 1999, creating the category from scratch. And it never actually left. But the issue is, these ads seldom sit well with the culture and morals of the Indian lot.

Just a few days ago the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had to intervene and pull the plug on yet another controversial deodorant ad created by Layer’r Shot, which to the opinions of many, promoted ‘rape culture’ and was ‘derogatory and harassing to women.’

The Axe story

It was in 2016 that Hindustan Unilever, the owner of the Axe brand of deodorants, announced that it will drop sexist stereotypes from its ads globally. But before that, the brand had certainly raised some eyebrows and irked the Indian sensibilities with its ‘AXE Effect’ series of ads. While some were subtle and toned-down with skimpily clad women chasing ‘ordinary’ guys as they sprayed Axe, some had to be axed by the government, like the international piece of women gnawing down on a chocolate man. Created by Argentinean advertisers and aired on Indian television, the ad showed crowds of attractive young women nibbling and licking at a young man wearing the deodorant. It also got the I&B ministry’s attention, which advised its member channels not to telecast the ad or any such advertisement with indecent, vulgar or suggestive themes to avoid any punitive action in future.

The Wild Stones & Zataks join the wagon

From its launch in the 90s to 2012, Axe remained the undisputed leader of the deodorant market in India. It's marketing, though slightly controversial, seemed to be working well with the masses. Therefore, many other brands took up the same theme in their advertisements. And while Axe mostly remained subtle in its communications, brands like Addiction, Wild Stones and Zatak took the sleaze a notch higher.

In fact, in 2011, the ministry of information and broadcasting once again had to order television broadcasters not to air seven overtly sexual deodorant ads including that of Addiction Deo, Set Wet Zatak, Wild Stone, Denver, Axe and asked the advertising watchdog, Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), to go after these brands for their indecent, vulgar and suggestive ads which it said portrayed women as lustily hankering after men under the influence of such deodorants.

 

The spray of change

While most of the deodorant brands stuck to these overtly sexual ads, several chose to move away from the path and set new precedents as well. For instance, Cinthol in 2008 launched ads – created by Orchard Adervtising – featuring Hrithik Roshan taking a sporty avatar to promote its range of products, including deodorants. The brand continued with a similar tone for quite some time.

 

Another brand that broke the clutter was Vini Cosmetics’ Fogg brand of deodorant. Launched in 2011, the brand disrupted the market by launching itself as a product with all perfume and no gas that gave consumers more sprays per bottle. It helped Fogg dislodge Axe from its top position for the first time in 2013, and since then it continued with its leadership position in the Indian deodorant market for a long time. 

The brand’s “Fogg Chal Raha Hai” campaign created by The Womb is one of India’s most loved and successful ad campaigns.

Over the past few years, there have been very conscious efforts by many deodorant brands in cutting sleaze and sexist overtures in their ad campaigns. Be it Brut’s ‘Nothing But The Truth’, HE’s “Every Sexist Commercial Ever”, or Axe’s #AbTeriBaari.

But there still continues to be a Layer’r Shot ad for several good attempts on the industry’s part. Let’s see when the absolute change comes for the good!

 

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