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Who's really affected by the "Axe Effect"?

by Nigel Hollis | January 09, 2009
Axe (or Lynx as it is known in the U.K.) is a leading deodorant brand in many countries around the world. The well-known "Axe Effect" portrayed in the brand's advertising, which causes women to go to extremes to get close to men who have sprayed themselves with Axe, has helped establish the brand's appeal, particularly with younger males. But this week we have learned the shocking truth. What had seemed like traditional advertising hyperbole may actually have some basis in fact.

In the unlikely event that you have not been exposed to any of the Axe TV advertising, here's a classic example that has been used in many countries.

This week Advertising Age reports the results of research conducted in the U.K. by Craig Roberts, a University of Liverpool professor who focuses on the role of scent in mate choice among humans and mice. Professor Roberts found that men who used Axe were seen as more attractive by females than men who used a "placebo" deodorant with no fragrance.

While this overall finding sounds pretty amazing – and might have one wondering what pheromones Unilever was adding to the product – the real reason for the difference is even more intriguing. Apparently the men who used Axe simply projected higher self-esteem than those who did not.

For those who do not have access to AdAge, Jack Neff's article summarizes the research and results as follows:

About 17 men were given an unmarked can of Lynx fragranced spray deodorant, and a further 17 got an unmarked can of spray deodorant with no fragrance. All the men were asked not to bathe for 48 hours, after which they each made a 15-second video describing themselves. Women were asked to watch the videos and rate the men's attractiveness.

"The research indicates a statistically significant proportion of the women did find Lynx-wearing men more attractive than their non-deodorized peers... The fragranced men got an average rating of 4.2 on a 7-point scale, 0.4 points higher than the 3.8 recorded for the wearers of placebo deodorant."

"In an effort to control for the innate attractiveness of the men, the women also rated photos taken of the men. The fragranced men's attractiveness rating was 27% higher in the videos taken after they used the deodorant than in their photos."

"Men also graded their self-confidence before and after the 48-hour trial. Those in the unfragranced group showed a slight and gradual decrease in their self esteem, according to Unilever, while those in the fragranced group had a slight boost in their confidence."

Of course, the confidence effect is not limited to young men or deodorant. The multi-billion dollar fragrance industry would not exist if both men and women did not feel in some way more attractive as a result of splashing perfume on themselves. The luxury sports car market would be much less valuable if people did not feel that driving a fancy car made them more impressive. The Axe research simply confirms that brands are a key means through which many people project personality, identity and status.

One thing is for sure. The Axe effect has helped the brand appeal to young men around the world irrespective of country and culture. By tapping into youth's preoccupation with "The Mating Game" through engaging advertising, the brand has become one of the few that have succeeded at forging bonds with consumers that transcend countries and cultures. Among thousands of brands, Axe ranked number 16 on the Global Power Score ranking created for The Global Brand, achieving a strong relationship with consumers in nearly 90 percent of the countries in which it was measured.

One note for all you guys now thinking of trying Axe. The research also found that: "Women rated the fragranced men as more attractive when the sound on the videos was off, but had no statistically significant preference when the sound was on." In other words, the confidence boost was actually so weak that it was confounded by how well the guys described themselves. So an alternative conclusion from this research might be that if you are not silver-tongued it is better to act the strong, silent type.

Come to think of it, even if you are the silver-tongued type, maybe you should think carefully before you open your mouth. Women may be looking for something other than what you think. Apparently Axe's research into male fantasies, as reported at the ESOMAR Annual Congress in September 2006, finds that while men and women share the ultimate goal of passing on their genes to the next generation, they look for very different things in prospective partners. Generally men look for youth (signifies fertility) and good looks (signifies health), and are also open to variety (in order to maximize the chances of reproduction). (These values are surprisingly well represented in the "Billions" commercial embedded above.) Generally women look for resource (demonstrates a capacity to invest), status (capacity to manipulate), and health (a cue to longevity). So maybe the safest strategy is spray on some Axe deodorant and then act the strong, wealthy and silent type.

Over to you. What do you think about the Axe research findings? How come academia gets away with using such small base sizes? Do you think that the stereotypical view of what men and women look for in a partner is accurate or not?


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  1. Nigel Hollis, January 16, 2009

    Thanks for this Phil, interesting stuff. I would write a post for you but I feel a headache coming on...maybe later after a couple of new and improves!

  2. Phil, January 16, 2009
    Having read the Bad Science blog for a couple of years, I've recently been reading 'Bad Science' the book.  In the chapter 'the placebo effect' the author (Ben Goldacre) cites a wide range of interesting studies.  (My favourite showed that 4 sugar pills a day are more effective than 2 sugar pills a day.) 

    In particular, two of the studies mentioned seem particularly relevant to marketing. Firstly, he describes a study by Branthwaite and Cooper in 1981 that showed placebo pills in flashy brand-name packaging were more effective than those in bland, neutral boxes.  The implication being that it is worth splashing out for brand name pain killers after all.

    The other study that spiked my interest was a meta analysis by Moerman of 117 studies of ulcer drugs.  It raised the possibility that a drug becomes less effective when a new and supposedly superior drug is launched.

    So when you next have a headache, you should buy the biggest brand name pain killers that say 'new and improved' on the box, that have pills at the lowest dose (so you can have 2 500mg pills instead of 1 1000mg pill).

    So here's a challenge for you Nigel - how about a post on 'marketing the placebo effect'
  3. Nigel Hollis, January 12, 2009

    Thanks James, you are correct. The women did not get to smell the guys, just look at them on the video. So the impact of the fragrance does seem to have been on the men's self confidence.

  4. James, January 12, 2009
    Did I misunderstand something -- the women never actually smelled the men -- correct? They were simply rating the men's "attractiveness" on a scale of 1 to 10. Presumably the men with AXE might somehow project more confidence or other characteristic. 34 subjects even with 1/2 in a control group can't be acurate. Forinstance what if the men in one group were all short or posess a trait that makes that group less appealing? I'd say you'd need to have a prety broad base before you could draw any conclusions one way or the other. Either way 0.4 difference doesn't seem terribly earth-shattering.
  5. miro, January 12, 2009
    the question I would have is whether its simply people responding to the fragrance vs no fragrance condition as Shirley noted - 2 days without showering ...any fragrance will help but poking deeper we don't know if the women in the study were familiar with Axe's fragrance, at which point the question can be broadened to include the impact of the AXE image on women's perception of the 'attractiveness' of men. Nigel - your last question about small sample size studies is right on the money - but I would expand that further to ask how large does a statistically significant result have to be before becoming meaningfully actionable in "real life" cheers Miro
  6. Nigel Hollis, January 12, 2009
    Hi Shirley and Phil, thanks for the comments.
    Eileen Campbell tells me that young males in Canada actually use Axe as a substitute for daily showering. Sadly this research might encourage more to do so.
    Phil, it is tough to comment on the validity of either piece of research given that we are relying on the journalist's interpretation but I have always believed that the "heathy body, healthy mind" mantra was reciprocal. I wonder if the physical results were related to posture? The people told they were exercising felt more confident and this was reflected in the way they stood, pulled in their stomach, etc?
  7. Phil, January 12, 2009
    This reminded me of a study last year that found that someone's physical condition can be improved by changing their mind set, which seems even more amazing.In short, a group of hotel cleaners who were briefed on how much exercise they were getting through their work subsequently 'thought themselves thin', whilst a control group who weren't briefed did not.  See here for more details Dr Goldacre says, it's an outrage.  But I wouldn't cancel that gym membership just yet.
  8. Shirley Acreman, January 12, 2009
    If I had not washed for two days, I'd probably be reassured by a little deodorising help.  Are we supposed to assume that this is realistic?  In which case, it tells us a lot more about male behaviour! 

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