Axe Not What Your Country Can Do (or: The Sweats of Sin)

An axe-gesis on the militarization of love, the assumption of the feminine gaze & how one anti-perspiratory aphrodisiac saved the world.
David Phelps

Clearly any product that can make the perils of imperial annihilation palatable, even winsome, should offer hope to those of us clubbing in the bunker of the American state. If peace really is possible, how hard could it be to get laid? In the widely relished, minute-long promo for Axe Peace, an extended version of a 30-second Super Bowl cut, ambrosial pits conquer all through a D.W. Griffith-like fantasia of four moral tales rhyming across the 20th century. Yet it's not simply a better future promised by the Axe Peace arsenal—"Peace Body Wash," "Peace Shave Gel," and the formidable "Cease Fire Control Cream"—but a better past. Against a desaturated conflation of two socialist states into a single, zombie metropolis, a Soviet-ish girl faces a Tiananmen Square-ish tank with a valiant application of scarlet lipstick and heels; perching the latter onto the tank, she embraces its driver, an old flame. Humanitarian crises fade, but love is forever: meanwhile, in the paddy fields of a Vietnam simulacra, a peasant girl pauses, crooking her sedge-hat-haloed head upward to the choppers—which have come to deliver her a wholesome, corncob boyfriend from American fields. In the slow glissade into the kiss, his M16 splatters in the mud.

Obviously, it is not simply two lovers who defy history in the Tiananment/Vietnam historical fables, but the Axe Corporation itself, its very tagline to "MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR" reappropriating yet another era as fond pastiche. Yet in the ad's modern tales, dictators du jour are found to engineer their own ad campaign for romantic conquest.  For in the present, evidently, the chain of command must no longer be broken but simply rerouted in its aims. A mock-Kim Jong-un employs a pageant of troops to hoist a billboard image above their heads of the royal couple, inscribed within a heart; a mock-Ahmadinejad steadies himself to push the Big Red Button. When only fireworks, not firestorms, are triggered, his wife breaks from her stately composition into a grin: she is evidently as delighted as everyone else to discover such amorous intentions behind what would have otherwise been another mere, mundane apocalypse, another of those Old Boys' chummy, clubhouse affairs.

"I'm not a big fan of peace, as it does not solve problems as much as war does," reads one recent, popular comment on the commercial's YouTube page. "However, love is something that is VERY important to me, so I loved this commercial." Indeed, what Axe's history lesson proposes is not simply that the leaders of the 21st century have consolidated their power by becoming the button-pushers themselves—today, the Tiananmen tank would be operated from a control room, if not PlayStation console—but that love itself has become inclusively militarized over time. The validity or falsity of such a happenstance teleology is besides the point: of course presidents could have pushed Big Red Buttons themselves during the Cold War, just as future drone operators, from Iowa complexes, might fly their girlfriends flowers through drone-mailmen and drop them babies through drone-storks. The larger point is simply that such power structures are indispensable to the success of love as spectacle: each of Axe's Korean soldiers might betoken yet another like on Instagram for the image the lovable dictator has conjured up as an adman of sorts himself.  Unlike their soldier (and Western) counterparts, the dictators must mediate their feelings through the infrastructure of a totalitarian state, and their wives beam at the photo opportunity. The final shot of the commercial is of two menservants in a royal bedroom spraying Axe onto the mock-Ahmadinejad, his arms upraised with messianic force. It is the antiperspirant of the Gods.

But no, no, another YouTube comment proclaims, obviously this isn't racist, imperialist hooey, since it's employing stereotypes to reverse them! No question that the commercial's shocking generic endings account for its success: just as it assures its audience of the most trite and condescending clichés, it condescends even further to intimate ignorance, as if all racist expectations were merely the viewer's own. Of course viewers are welcome, then, to take such condescension as a promotion instead to a higher intellectual plane: Axe P.R. guy, viewer, and totalitarian ruler all end up alike being smarter than they set themselves up to be.  It's this same kind of sycophantic punchline, after all, that the men themselves deploy on the women, who seem to radiate joy at not being killed—perhaps flittingly aware, after all, of the fate of their less fortunate historical counterparts. Even the mock-Kim Jong-un lets loose a little smile in this vision of a kinder, more loving dictator; a kinder, more loving military; a kinder, more loving Vietnam. The paddy farm girl is evidently so moved by the man's refusal to rape her that her response precludes any need to in the first place. Viewers, similarly moved by schematic tokens of multiculturalism and totalitarian-backed humanism, can only submit themselves as Ideal Axe Women to the powers of male genius who defy their simpler expectations. As usual, the Axe P.R. team redeems its own clichés by affirming them as nothing more; probably, instead, the main achievement of this aspiringly more mature B.O. ad is to replace the gloatingly horny male gaze of previous Axe campaigns with a more solemn, socially-responsible assumption of a female gaze, prostrate in gratitude for all the indulgences of great, richly fragranced men, draining state coffers with the flick of the wrist.

So unlike the campaign a few years ago declaring that "The Summer of Love Is Now At Macy's!", the commercial for Axe Peace exploits a sweet nostalgia for a time when mainstream culture could equate personal and political relationships by, it seems, advocating peace through sex. After all in today's world, America's major hidden industry, "defense," can only thrive off the connivances of mainstream culture as its own form of antiperspirant—a kind of pharmakon of spectacle to disguise and promote alike the invisible interests of war subtending the commercial infrastructure. The featured picture of the week on the Axe website is of a soldier kissing: no resistance leader, but a true hero, for all Americans—a human weapon who hasn't lost his capacity to feel. As for the ever-acquiescent girl facing up to Axe's challenge to "#kissforpeace," the commercial serves as another useful reminder from the pioneers of bro aroma that a girl's sexual history, like all others, should also be written by the victors.

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