Oppositional position may blow up in Tag's face

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Both Axe and Tag go after teen boys with body sprays in phallic black canisters using commercials with outrageously exaggerated claims of how the scents make women surrender their reason and bodies.

Clearly, it's a winning proposition. The best thing for guys since alcohol. It has propelled Unilever (maker of Axe) nearly to leadership in U.S. men's deodorants and inspired Gillette Co. (follower with Tag) to make easily the most interesting ads it ever has directed at men. But more interesting are the differences in execution and what they imply about strategy.

Unilever defines Axe's target as men 18-25. Consistent with this, it runs its ads by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, on late-night TV and radio.

Gillette, taking a similar creative approach, defines Tag's target as boys and men ages 15-20. Its ads are from Havas' Arnold Worldwide, Boston, including the most memorable one featuring a 40-something mom importuning her daughter's boyfriend in the foyer. But Tag ads have run in prime-time network on such shows as Fox's "24" and "American Idol."

Tag is even running ads heavily during baseball games on Fox Sports Network affiliates nationwide. Of course, these ads are far more likely to be seen by men deciding between Levitra and Cialis than boys weighing Axe and Tag.

Now that audience, mostly white men in red states, have stopped thinking about which drug provides the stronger, longer-lasting experience. Instead, they're wondering if it will be moot when mom catches a whiff of the Tag-doused pool boy. More realistically, many of them, and the moms who caught the act during "American Idol," are sharpening their pitchforks for the first Tag marketer who comes to town.

A Gillette spokeswoman said Tag, which now is seeking guys up to 25, a five-year upgrade from a week earlier, is heavily into prime-time and sports TV because it works and because young guys watch lots of TV. But, keep in mind, this same spokeswoman a week earlier coyly said: "We're just the little Tag Fragrance Co.," noting lack of Gillette ownership on the packaging.

The inescapable conclusion is that either Gillette is really dumb, or really smart, like Machiavelli and Sergio Zyman. Since Gillette's media planners and buyers are from WPP Group's Mindshare, New York, just like Unilever's, I'm leaning toward smart.

It looks a lot like oppositional positioning, such as when Mr. Zyman launched clear Tab in the early '90s. The idea wasn't to sell clear Tab. It was to position presumed juggernaut Crystal Pepsi as a diet drink instead of what it really was, which was never clear. Whether Crystal Pepsi died of Mr. Zyman's cleverness or of its own absurdity, celebrated by Amoco's serious offering of clear gasoline and the "Crystal Gravy" spoof on "Saturday Night Live," wasn't clear either.

It would be hard not to detect the similarity between Tab and Tag.

In Tag's case, the thinking appears to be: If boys buy it or their parents buy it for them, great. If the folks hate it and take it out on nearly identical Axe, too, just as good.

Of course, while Mr. Zyman was cleverly killing Crystal Pepsi, Coca-Cola Co. was not-so-deftly failing to market what would be a truly transformational clear beverage-water.

It's possible to be both very clever and not very smart.

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