First thing that came to my mind when I heard Axe had a new ad? Ridiculously attractive women pouncing on a man, attractive or otherwise, merely because he smells good. I’m pretty sure most men would be exultant if that happened to them (although highly unlikely), so this advertising strategy undoubtedly works for their demographic of teenagers and men in their 20s. Unilever's Axe owned a whopping 72% of the body-spray market in the U.S. in 2012, 58 points higher than it's nearest competitor, Old Spice (Feifer, 2012). So they know that sex sells, and their marketing works. Ferguson and colleagues showed that sexual content in advertisements increases memory for the advertisement as well as for the product, implicating an increase in sales (Ferguson, Cruz, Martinez, Rueda, & Ferguson, 2010). So Axe stuck to it – but in a radically different way.
This Axe ad that is said to air at this year’s Super Bowl (that’s American football fans in the bag), doesn't blatantly refer to sex but does so subtly. It uses the popular slogan ‘Make Love, Not War’ to push its new product line called Axe Peace. It depicts scenes of war, the Middle East and North Korea, building up tension that is sure to end in violence which instead becomes a celebration of love and peace. It includes the hashtag #KissForPeace and the logo of the Peace One Day Organisation, a partner of the campaign. But what does deodorant have anything to do with peace?
The ad still works.
The makers of the ad cleverly associated peace, something that we’ve all been conditioned to yearn for and deem positive, with the deodorant. We unconsciously attribute the positive qualities of peace to the deodorant, making us like it more, therefore increasing the probability of us buying it. A similar association was seen in an experiment by Staats and Staats (1958) who paired national and masculine names with either positive or negative words and found that these words transferred their value to the names, even though there is no direct link between those values and the names (Pratkanis, 2007). Thus, conditioning and association leads to liking – a powerful force of influence according to Cialdini (2007).
The brilliant use of persuasion techniques doesn't stop there. The ad also toys with our emotions, beginning with the negative emotions of fear and hate that are linked to war and unexpectedly ending up with the happiness inducing message of peace and love. Making the audience experience an emotion that is then rapidly withdrawn is called ‘emotional see-saw’ and it increases compliance. In one of their experiments, Dolinski & Nawrat (1998) had subjects think they were receiving a parking ticket when it was actually a false alarm. These subjects, who had experienced fear that was then withdrawn, were subsequently found to be more likely to volunteer at an orphanage. There isn't any direct link here or in the Axe ad, but they both lead to compliance!
Ultimately, the revenue of these sex-crazy advertisers of Axe goes through the roof because they know what we like and they use it well.
Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of Persuasion. New York: Harper Collins
Dolinksi, D., & Nawrat, R. (1998). “Fear-then-relief” procedure for inducing compliance. Beware when the danger is over. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 32, 435-447.
Feifer, J. (2012). Axe's highly scientific, typically outrageous and totally irresistible selling of lust. Fast Company, 168, 104-109.
Ferguson, C. J., Cruz, A. M., Martinez, D., Rueda, S.M., & Ferguson, D. E. (2010). Violence and sex as advertising strategies in television commercials. European Psychologist, 15 (4), 304-311.
Pratkanis, A. R. (2007). Social influence analysis: An index of tactics. In The science of social influence: Advances and future progress. (pp.17-82). New York: Psychology Press.
Staats, A. W., & Staats, C. K. (1958). Attitudes established by classical conditioning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 57, 37-40.