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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 complexions.

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 Dove decries.

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 says.

Unilever does not accept Linn's characterization of the Axe ads.

"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 frankly."

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 isolation.

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.



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