Axe Goes Celibate: Why Unilever Chose to Forgo Sex in Ad for New Scent

Ad Explores Complexities of Temptation Discovered In GQ, Lucky Collaboration

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Years of advertising have left the impression Axe is all about sex. As Unilever sees it, it's as least as much about fragrance. The brand's latest launch – its first-ever extension of an existing fragrance – is the biggest bet yet on that point, and an effort to help prove Axe has the best nose for scent marketing in the mass business.

Axe Gold Temptation extends the brand's most popular fragrance, Dark Temptation, launched in 2008. To back it, Axe is doing something it's never tried before -- an ad that features no boy-girl interplay whatsoever, not even the high-concept sort it's tried at times in recent years, such as Kiefer Sutherland's wistful remembrance of a girl he never had the guts to approach.

The new ad for Gold Temptation from Ponce, Buenos Aries, part of Interpublic's Lowe Campbell Ewald, shows a factory line pumping out such things as a chocolate bunny and the gold bust of a goddess, cutting to two related yet different body washes.

"The idea was that chocolate is pretty irresistible, and we've developed a fragrance that was as irresistible as chocolate," said Matthew McCarthy, Axe senior marketing director. "Gold Temptation is really built on the insight that temptation between boys and girl has many facets. It's not just a sexual temptation."

So the more modern take on Temptation is meant to be a bit more complex both in scent and marketing. By comparison, ads behind the 2008 Dark Temptation launch featured a chocolate man besieged by sex-and-chocolate-crazed females breaking off pieces of him to eat. While Dark Temptation had notes of chocolate and vanilla, like a cupcake, Gold Temptation is more exotic, featuring a citrusy base with notes of cardamom and coriander.

That tack toward complexity was an outgrowth of insights from an Axe partnership with Conde Nast's GQ and Lucky, brokered by WPP's Mindshare, Mr. McCarthy said. Taking media partnerships deeper into product and concept development is "a newer space for us," he added.

Axe joined GQ and Lucky in surveying 1,000 males and 1,000 females to find "75% of the guys and 60% of the girls admit to not understanding as much as they'd like to about what tempts the opposite sex," he said. "That helped us get beyond the face value of what temptation means."

The social-media portion of Axe's "Summer of Temptation" campaign has thus been built around soliciting thoughts from both sexes about what they find tempting in the other.

The idea isn't for Gold to replace Dark, but that if you liked Dark, you may like Gold too, Mr. McCarthy said. Scents don't necessarily have pre-ordained life cycles, though some last longer than others, he said, with some, such as Phoenix and Kilo having hung around more than a decade.

Extending popular scents is an idea borrowed from prestige fragrance, but Axe sees itself fully prepared to play at that level of sophistication. Some of that, Mr. McCarthy said, comes from Ann Gottlieb, the "nose" behind Axe for two decades, who also works on such prestige brands as CK and Marc Jacobs.

As with the development of Gold Temptation, it's hard to say generally which comes first – the fragrance, or the story Axe builds around it with marketing, Mr. McCarthy said. "It's a courtship in the development process. In fact, most often they happen together, and they actually influence each other."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story didn't mention Lucky's involvement in the survey and may have been read to indicate that only 1,000 men and women total were surveyed, when it was 1,000 men and 1,000 women.

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