Taking the Axe to Unilever's hypocrisy
By Jennifer Wells
The Toronto Star
November 28, 2007
Rye Clifton, emailing from Richmond, Va., explains that
his intention was to "add to the conversation that was
already happening online."
So let's get in on that.
The "conversation" was spurred by Dove's Onslaught, a
viral video I wrote about last month. You may remember
it: a sweet-faced pre-teen is seen crossing the street
with her school chums, just a regular backpack-toting
gaggle of girls.
Such innocence is juxtaposed against rapid-fire images
of skin elixirs and cellulite suckers and breast
fluffers and yo-yo diets. The video's simple tag line:
"Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does."
Studied in isolation, the film is a powerful assault on
the beauty trade. Except that Dove, owned by the giant
multinational Unilever, is the beauty industry, pushers
of Slim-Fast and Axe body products for men and, through
its subsidiary in India, the Fair & Lovely line of skin
lighteners, which equate empowerment with fair
It was the contradiction between the virtue of the Dove
campaign, which aims to illustrate "the destructive
impact images of unattainable perfection can have," and
the raunchier Axe identity that got Rye Clifton
thinking. A strategic planner by trade, Clifton
describes himself as a guy who has always enjoyed making
films and taking pictures. So he took the front end of
the Onslaught video and seamlessly appended to it a
series of Axe promo images.
Should you be unaware, the women who push Axe body wash
and body spray and other Axe body products are sleek and
buxom and tiny waisted and fond of such extracurricular
pursuits as pole grinding. The very sort of image that
The kicker to the Clifton video is the mimicking tag
line: "Talk to your daughter before Unilever does."
Psychologist Susan Linn, director and co-founder of the
Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood,
says it's important for the public to understand that
one company rules over both brands.
"There's an inherent hypocrisy in promoting the
well-being of girls with one product and promoting
degrading sexualized stereotypes with another," she
Unilever does not accept Linn's characterization of the
"I think it is inherently and absolutely clear that the
Axe campaign is all around poking fun," says Geoff
Craig, vice-president and general manager of brand
building for Unilever Canada. "It's a spoof of the
mating game, and people view it exactly as such, quite
Do we? In Clifton's film, a sleek female bikinied
huntress trails an Axe-scented male in the company of
hundreds of her tribe and her own supranatural,
gravity-defying breasts. The ad line: "Spray more, get
more. The Axe effect."
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has
launched an "Ax the Axe campaign" letter-writing drive
demanding that Unilever ditch its ads. Linn says her
organization has heard nothing from Unilever
headquarters directly, and that it has received about
2,500 letters directed to Unilever.
Last night, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty launched
an online "diary" reality show featuring four young
American women poised to answer questions from other
young women on issues of self-esteem. The show joins the
workshops and mentoring programs that Dove has funded in
the hopes of accomplishing the lofty goal of bringing
"societal change" to modern perceptions of beauty.
Unilever could broadly align itself with that. Or it
could pretend, as it has before, that Dove exists in
At Unilever Canada, Geoff Craig says the company is
happy to provoke debate. Chat lines. Blogs. The
conversation is getting rolling in many places. Rye
Clifton has done his bit. Now it's over to you.