Last year when my friend John returned home after a yearlong stint in Afghanistan, I noticed there was something different about him. Yes, he still joked about dating a cougar, and yes, his musical taste had enriched somewhat overseas (he asked me to burn him the new Sufjan Stevens's album), but something about John was not the same.
Stationed in the Afghan mountains, in the midst of war, this Marine had no choice but to start wearing AXE products. After years of sniffing it out, it's obvious that AXE only belongs on the bodies of recently pubescent cousins or Jersey Shore Bizarros, two demographics vulgar enough to get away with it. However, AXE is getting sprayed across the pecs of more established men: Marines. And it's not much of a choice.
The post exchange closest to John's camp in Afghanistan only carried grooming products made by AXE. You know AXE. Certainly you've smelt it walking in a Gold's Gym or while waiting in line for a show at the Regency Center. In their TV and print ads AXE promises that their products will have women writhing at your feet. Women soaking wet in your shower can't get enough of that manufactured ubertestosterone. That's the AXE brand: blatant, bold and balls-out. Literally.
Its Dutch parent company, Unilever, has somehow landed an exclusive deal with the United States Marine Corps to be the only grooming product sold to soldiers overseas. Whereas a similar contract with such brands as Gillette and Kellogg seems typical and necessary to give the Marines the comfort of home, what strikes me about the AXE contract is how much the grooming products' brand strays from that vision of hometown stability.
AXE, at least in America, likes to position itself as a product for the sex-crazed party animals inside all of us men. Not for the supposedly clean-cut, disciplined Marines deployed in conflict zones. So how did AXE get to clog the aisles and the nostrils of men in Afghanistan?
"We didn't have a large variety of products to choose from," John said. "But for it to be the only brand, it's a ridiculous.
A particularly dumbfounding product that was introduced shortly after John began serving overseas was the AXE Recovery Invigorating Electrolytes Shower Gel. And what does this gel claim to recover you from, exactly?
Late party? Long night? Groggy morning? Axe Recovery shower gel with invigorating electrolytes brings you back to life -- making your next day almost as good as your last night.
That does not sound like something a Marine would need.
"Anti-hangover products should not be sold to us over there. We clearly don't have use for it," John said. The U.S. military stresses the ban on alcohol consumption while stationed overseas. "It's thoughtless, cruel, and idiotic," John added.
Idiotic is perhaps the adjective that best describes the situation. John blames it more on poor planning on the representatives' part; less of an evil ploy by corporations to brainwash via body wash. Not too outlandish when you consider seduction of our servicemen has been a frequent strategy of our consumerist culture. The Salvation Army got soldiers into doughnuts during World War I, supplying a demand for Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts. And we've all heard how Colonel Sanders began testing his famous chicken recipe when he was in the Army, years before his first Kentucky restaurant opened its doors.
Like the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy, AXE was dropped into a foreign culture without much thought as to the consequences. In this case, the consequences were loaded implications of reckless sexual behavior, which AXE has been aggressively marketing as the brand image since its launch. In Europe, the Recovery shower gel is known as Anti-hangover.
"Insulting, don't you think?" John asked me hypothetically. "When you think about the fact that we (Marines) can't drink over here and insulting to the culture of the locals, too."
Since American troops aren't allowed to drink alcohol, let alone use recreational drugs, AXE is contradictory to military culture. Not to mention such products being completely disrespectful to the Afghanis who practice a strict code of sobriety.
"It feels like a slap in the face," John said. "And on top of that, I smell like shit."
Follow Oscar Raymundo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/oscarraymundo