It’s been a couple of weeks since I spotted the first poster advertising the Axe – Apollo competition in London. Yes, I am talking about that competition that promises to give 22 people from the whole world an opportunity to join a suborbital flight on XCOR’s Lynx space plane. As everyone in the space community, I had already heard about this project, advocated in the US by Buzz Aldrin himself. But as a lifelong motion sickness sufferer, I have to admit that I wasn’t tempted at all to compete for the opportunity to join this sub-orbital roller coaster. After seeing the poster, I just though to myself: “Is this really how they are advertising the ‘next big thing’ of the 21st century?” For those who haven’t seen it yet, let me describe the poster briefly: an obviously attractive, scantily clad, young woman is cuddling up to a man (supposedly) dressed in a spacesuit. The text below says: “Leave a man, come back a hero!” No need to say, that such image represents the purest form of an ultimate sexual stereotype and aims at the lowest common denominator that should attract people (mostly men) to the competition (Yes, silly hot airheads would love you – is that really all commercial space flight is good for?)

Axe Apollo astronaut and girls in pool

Is that really all private sub-orbital space flight has to offer? Some female space enthusiasts have expressed their disappointment (Credits: LynxApollo).

Discouraging Women in Space in 2013

Disappointed a bit by the low level of creative effort Axe marketers (member of the Unilever family) invested into that campaign, I happily forgot about it. It was only earlier this week, when I was reminded of this silly commercial again – by Space Safety Magazine’s managing editor Merryl Azriel who pointed out a blog of a fellow London-based Space journalist Kate Arkless Gray (aka SpaceKate). Kate (obviously not being a motion sickness sufferer) had joined the competition at the first occasion, only to become extremely disappointed after uncovering the whole promotional campaign. It is not only the above described poster, there is a similar TV spot too, and plenty of promotional materials available online. In her blog, Kate condemns the way the campaign not only discourages female participants, but is also very disrespectful to all the women who successfully took part in various space missions, some of them even serving as ISS commanders. By depicting women as decorative trophies and men as the heroes doing courageous stuff, the commercial is bringing us back to the 1950’s type of thinking.

Axe shower ad discarded spacesuit

The campaign runs in 60 countries all over the world. Some of them banned women from taking part in the competition (Credits: LynxApollo).

Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes

But since then, we have moved forward a bit, haven’t we? So far, 56 women have flown to space. And clearly, they had to fight hard for their opportunities. After the first woman in history, Russian Valentina Tereskhova, flew to space in 1963, it took full 19 years for her successor Svetlana Savitskaya to get the chance. First American astronaut Sally Ride flew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger two years later. SpaceKate also criticizes the competition for reinforcing many unhealthy gender stereotypes, for example that science and engineering belong solely in the realm of men. Being obviously very passionate about the topic, she reached out to NASA spokes people to gauge their opinion. Rebecca Keiser, NASA representative to the White House Council on Women and Girls commented: “Even today in 2013, many images of women (and stereotypes of men) in the media, show that we still have a lot of work to do regarding the role of women and their importance to fields like STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics),” she said. “We need to do as much as we can to project a much more realistic and positive image of women, as well as encourage more girls to enter into STEM fields.  We are working hard at NASA on this effort and we hope to do even more.” According to SpaceKate, press representatives of the Axe-Apollo project in the UK were genuinely surprised that the campaign might be perceived as sexist and reassured that women are more than welcome to join.

Valentina Tereshkova

One might wonder, what does Valentina Tereskhova think about the Axe campaign?

Controversy as Women Banned in Some Countries

Some people commenting on SpaceKate’s blog suggested that Axe, being a predominantly male brand, has the right to advertise the competition, and the related new Apollo product, however they wish to. Nevertheless, the TV commercial itself was further criticized by a blogger at Forbes for being not only sexist, but basically not clear and understandable. What do they really advertise? Is it the cosmetics brand? But we haven’t seen it in the whole TV spot…. Is it the competition? Who can enter it then? One of the first people commenting on SpaceKate’s blog was Space Safety Magazine’s Carmen Victoria Felix, who shared some rather shocking revelations about the rules of the competition in her home country Mexico. Targeting altogether 60 countries, the campaign obviously allows local organizers a certain level of independence.

Axe ad amle astronaut in bed with women

Media representatives of the Axe Apollo project in the UK were supposedly genuinely surprised the campaign might be perceived as sexist (Credits: Axe Mexico).

Some of these countries, including Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Kuwait, Ukraine, and United Arab Emirates chose to ban women from participating completely. The controversy is building up and one can only assume that the publicity is far from what Unilever wished for when purchasing those suborbital flight tickets for the competition winners. In the meantime, the company has announced that they are communicating with local marketers in those countries prohibiting female participation and will require them to adjust the rules. Let’s hope the girls watching these adverts who happen to dream about going to space and a career in science at the same time won’t be discouraged by the commercials’ narrative. And prehaps by their male classmates, parents, or teachers telling them that space is only for real men. It would be sad if a competition that presents such a unique opportunity for science and space outreach would only turn into a ultimate force reinforcing unhealthy cultural stereotypes. And it doesn’t really matter that it is Unilever paying for that.

What do you think about the Axe Apollo campaign? Leave a comment…. What do you think about the TV spot?

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Opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Space Safety Magazine or of its sponsoring organizations IAASS and ISSF.

18 Responses

  1. SpaceBiscuit

    The campaign isn’t sexist, it’s just a continuation of the Axe/Lynx marketing tradition. In the past Axe/Lynx have used imagery of sometimes geeky looking guys being chased by women after using their deodorant. This is nothing new. Nobody was up in arms (pun intended) about it then, and they shouldn’t be now.

    Let’s be clear…this isn’t unilever trying to push the boundaries of human exploration: they simply want to sell more deodorant. And judging by how viral this campaign has gone (even before the superbowl ad), its looking like they are going to sell a LOT of deodorant.

    What IS sad and sexist is that certain governments won’t even permit women to compete. But here in the so-called “civilized” world, if you look at the rankings for the different competitions globally, there are quite a lot of women climbing the rankings. True, it’s not a 50/50 split between the sexes, but then neither is the aerospace sector in general, and that is an issue for society at large, and for parenting in particular. Give your kids chemistry sets and telescopes instead of barbie dolls and toy ovens and they will develop into more rounded individuals who are not slaves to traditional gender roles.

    Here’s one of many adverts showing skinny men getting female attention just because the use Axe/Lynx. Google “The Lynx Effect” and you will find many videos of a similar theme.

    As for being “disrespectful” to the women who have participated in space flight before, I don’t think it is disrespectful. All those women in space industry and on the Lynx leaderboards are honoring those by working in space industry and following their dreams. AGain, if there aren’t enough of them, then it’s society’s fault, not Lynx’s.

    (p.s I don’t use Lynx, so i’m not defending them. I’m just saying, it’s a traditional narrative that has been previously used by the company to sell their stuff).

  2. Tereza Pultarova

    You are perfectly right that it is the usual Axe narrative. What I find a bit difficult to understand about this campaign though, is the fact that it actually promotes a competition that targets a very different audience than the usual TV spots. AXE targets male customers aged 15-25 (I guess more of the younger ones), whose goal in life so far is to get some girls probably to lose their virginity. On the other hand, to take part in the competition, it is not even necessary to buy this product (so far).

    The marketers obviously counted on the fact, that by offering something like a free sub-orbital space flight, they will create a lot of media attention which will further promote their products (and they were right, would Buzz Aldrin star in a regular AXE commercial? I don’t think so…).

    There are thousands of people around the world, who consider going to space even for a brief moment their ultimate dream. They might not have the funds to get there and the competition is giving them the chance…The people who are attracted to this project are different people than those usual immature lads – Axe costumers.

    And that’s why I think they should have given a bit more consideration to this campaign…. Otherwise it is kind of demeaning the whole space endeavour.

  3. Tom Billings

    If this makes people feel bad, then have some ads with a basically very good-looking woman (at least as good as Bonny Dunbar, the Astronaut, for instance), made up to be mousey for a before the flight scene, who is subtly transformed when she steps out of the Lynx vehicle into the arms of several of the rich handsome men who have already signed up for their own flights. There are enough of them that a few at least should be good looking.

  4. Charles

    My concern with this article is that it presupposes a debate but in reality the author seems to think that the commercial was indeed sexist. Moreover, I one statement by the author stood out as particularly curious.

    “AXE targets male customers aged 15-25 (I guess more of the younger ones), whose goal in life so far is to get some girls probably to lose their virginity.”

    Subjectively, this is an equally sexist statement towards men who are in this age group or have been in that age group, i.e. the generalization that the goal of all men in this age group is to get girls and lose their virginity. How is that not sexist?

  5. Tereza Pultarova

    Hi Charles, sorry for that remark, I didn’t mean to offend anyone. But what in your opinion is the appeal of the usual AXE narrative discussed previously by Space Biscuit?

    If I was a man, I would have felt a bit offended myself by AXE supposing that the only way to make me think about space is women….

  6. Ani Vermeulen

    Hi Tereza,

    Your article is the first one I’ve read that didn’t seem shy to say what a lot of people seem to be thinking.

    My opinion is that yes, the AXE Apollo contests and ad campaigns are indeed sexist. However, whether that means they are demeaning to women is an entirely different conversation.

    The fact is that AXE is, and always has been, a product made for and targeted at Men. It therefore, by definition, is sexist, as it focuses on a specific gender. AXE ads have always been heavily laden with sexual innuendo and blown-out stereotypes. An example of this is the campaign that ran a few years ago where the Geek gets the girl because he wore AXE.

    Are these ads demeaning to women? Perhaps. Do women have to fight harder to achieve the same things men do? Unfortunately, the answer is still yes. But has anybody ever taken on AXE in the past because of their alleged sexism? Not that I’m aware of.

    The fact that some countries chose to exclude women from entering is saddening, but I wonder if perhaps it doesn’t have more to do with the cultural biases of those countries than AXE themselves. I am glad to hear that they have responded by ordering all the participating countries to lift the ban – but is it enough?

    When I first encountered the AXE contest, I was angry. I was maddened by the extremely male-centric approach that AXE took. I felt excluded purely because of my gender. I was upset because I am a woman who happens to adore the AXE brand and products. So I read my country’s T&Cs and realised that nowhere did they state that “Participants” have to be male. I decided to challenge the gender bias by entering to prove a point.

    Now, almost a month later, I cannot be angry at AXE for targeting their majority product demographic. Sure, the website says “Leave a man.” and when you cast a vote, the pronouns are all male. But I cannot be angry because I have benefited off the presupposed sexism of their campaign. The combination of humour and anger has led to me having a major support base for my campaign here in South Africa – to the point where I am in the Top 3.

    AXE have been very jovial about the whole thing – calling us “AXE Angels” and being supportive of us entering their male-centric contest. So yes, it is clear that the entire thing was sexist, but do we get angry when brands that make female products have contests aimed exclusively at women? No, because it’s perfectly logical to have brands that are targeted to genders.

    Sure, AXE could have been a touch less male-centric in their design of the contest. However, as a women who was given the right to enter – I chose to enter and fight rather than sit back and complain.

    I wonder some days why men themselves aren’t more offended by AXE’s very obvious inference that without their deodorants, they don’t stand a chance of landing themselves a lady?

    At the end of the day, AXE makes lovely products. Men like it (mostly) and the ladies love it (mostly). I know I do. And I have been given an opportunity to win a trip to space. Do I have to fight harder for it than the men? Maybe I do. But I can, and so I will.

  7. Charles

    The point is that you did offend somebody with that remark. It was as equally if not more demeaning towards men as you personally are railing against the commercial’s attitude towards women. Sexism goes both ways and you have demonstrated that quite well.

    Furthermore, you make a broad assumption that all women found the commercial to be demeaning. Unless, you have data backing that up you’re falling into a typical journalistic trap.

    Sadly, those women who looked upon this commercial as nothing more than a silly commercial for men’s hygiene products will not post here either because they are rolling their eyes at the silliness of it all or they’re reluctant to voice a dissenting opinion in what has become a mob-mentality issue.

  8. Tereza Pultarova

    Dear Charles,

    thank you for sharing your concern regarding my article. I would just like to point out that sexism in AXE adds has been discussed and criticized by many people for ages. There are even articles in social science journals written concerning the problem of gender stereotyping in advertising. That’s not my invention.

    The marketers themselves are quite open about the fact that “sex sells”, and, in the case of AXE, they are clear about their target group and why they believe the chosen narrative works on that group (so again that remark that offended you was only a summary of something expressed by marketing people on many occasions).

    I believe there are people, men and women, who like these commercials. On the other hand, there were times when the majority of people considered it all right that women didn’t have the right to vote or that black people are a commodity to be sold. So in my eyes, that someone doesn’t see a problem doesn’t make the problem non-existent.

    The reason, I believe, why this article was published in the Space Safety Magazine is, that this time, AXE is basically promoting human space flight, something that is frequently used in science, education and space outreach regardless of gender differences, to inspire and attract children and young people.

    That’s the reason, why it might be found inappropriate to connect this message with powerful gender stereotyping.

  9. Charles

    Nice. You’re equating people who like these commercials to those who thought a woman should not vote or that African Americans could be bought or sold as property. Wow! That’s a pretty hefty political viewpoint.

  10. Stunned

    “On the other hand, there were times when the majority of people considered it all right that women didn’t have the right to vote or that black people are a commodity to be sold. ”

    Sorry, at no point in history have the majority of people thought that the Atlantic Slave Trade was a good thing.

    There was opposition on both sides of the Atlantic, and slavery had long been outlawed in the Middle East. Slavery was condcted by a minority of the world population, and conseqently, the majority could not have been pro-slavery.

    It’s bad-form to compare perceived sexism to the Slave Trade. It is the equivalent of “Godwin’s Law”. Nobody has been displaced here, nobody has lost their family, or been hung. The analogy is a false one.

  11. Stunned

    Also, if you look at some of the entries in the Axe Apollo competition, a lot of he female entries have “you should vote for me because i’m a woman” written underneath.

    this is also sexist. imagine if the words “you should vote for me because i’m white” were written there.

  12. Tereza Pultarova

    Dear Stunned,

    Thank you for your comment.I feel you might have slightly misinterpreted something. No one is comparing sexist adverts to slavery.

    As per your other comment. You say that if female competitors claim “vote for me because I am a woman,” it is sexist. I believe it is more about trying to be a role model. I know I should stop with examples as always someone tries to get me on something I said as an example. But – and forgive me if I am wrong as I am not American: Wasn’t a small part of the Barrack Obama appeal the fact that he is the first Afro-American (member of a long opressed part of the population) who had the chance to become American president? Doing a similar analogy as you performed with my comment, it would mean Obama’s campaign was based on racism? I don’t think so. On the contrary, I believe that different parts of population need role models they can identify with and that’s why diversity is so important….

  13. Stunned

    Actually, Obama’s campaign was not based on racism, but the voting decisions of a lot of the population WERE just that. There are many examples of newsclips where voters state that they voted for him because he is a black man.

    It IS racist. Discrimination doesn’t have to be negative, positive discrimination exists also.

    The Obama election campaign was interesting for another reason too: Obama was running against Hilary Clinton for the top job, which led sveral observers to conclude that while America may be more relaxed in it’s attitudes to race, it certainly hasn’t with respect to gender!

    In other words, they were happy to have a black man in office, as long as they didn’t end up with a white woman!

  14. Tom Billings

    “Sorry, at no point in history have the majority of people thought that the Atlantic Slave Trade was a good thing.”

    It need not be thought of as a good thing, to be accepted as a norm, and it was. The strong forcing the weak to do what profited the strong is an ancient story.

    “There was opposition on both sides of the Atlantic, and slavery had long been outlawed in the Middle East. Slavery was condcted by a minority of the world population, and conseqently, the majority could not have been pro-slavery.”

    OK, …While I agree with the rest of your comments, we have got to have the history straight.

    In fact, for thousands of years before the Atlantic Slave Trade began, and for several decades after it ended, slavery was a normal thing throughout the ME and the rest of the world. It was not abolished in the Ottoman Empire till several decades after the US Civil War.

    From Wikipedia:

    “Slavery was an important part of Ottoman society[1] until the Ottoman Empire ended slavery of Caucasians (including Georgians, Armenians, and Circassians) in the early 19th century.[2] The practice carried over into Ottoman reign, as slaves from other groups were allowed. As late as 1908, female slaves were still sold in the Ottoman Empire.[3]”

    It was prevalent in Saudi Arabia until the King banned it, …I think in 1952. In the 1980s there were still families in Asir province south of Mecca who were still acting like they were slaves, because no one would enforce the laws against their supposedly former masters.

    The opposition in Britain to the slave trade began as a religious minority among dissenter religious groups in Britain, and spread to the US. At no time till after the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars showed that the “Sugar Islands” of the Caribbean were *not* needed for the trade that would support enough sailors in peacetime to man the Royal Navy in wartime, was there a majority actively against slavery in Britain. Until slavery became associated in the minds of US citizens with secession by states controlled by slaver oligarchs, there was no majority against it here.

    In the ancient world it was a norm. Slaves were so plentiful in Rome that Senators voted down a law to make them wear an identifying mark, lest they realize how many they were, and what their true strength in numbers might be.

    Slavery has been re-introduced recently, in Mali, when the Salafists took over large parts of the country. It had only been banned by the French colonial administration, who then looked the other way, so that it had to be banned again, mostly ineffectively, in the 1960s.

    The Atlantic Slave Trade was a *very* bad thing! It still was not a tithe of the slavery practiced throughout the rest of history, including the ME.

    As to the rest of this discussion- Sexism in ads exists because of the difference between the brains of 15 years old males and mature adults in society, when said 15 year olds still have money to buy cologne. The male brain is still changing towards mature status till an average age of 25. Ads will take advantage of this fact to sell stuff they otherwise would not buy. The only cure for these attitudes among any large group of 15 year olds is to get them to 25 still alive! Trying to lower the risk in the crap shoot when a female is interacting with males below that age is forlorn.

  15. Lauren

    Watching the Axe commercial at the Super Bowl drove me crazy since I have always wanted to go to space and felt frustrated by not even being allowed the chance to participate in the competition. Once I realized that I actually can join the competition I was extremely excited.

    It sucks that a lot of the advertising was male oriented to a fault, but it’s surprising that this is something that a lot of people are just now noticing. I feel like most of their advertising is the same way.

    A lot of people are trying to vote for women just to spite the intention of the advertising, but that isn’t the way I would want to win. While I don’t think that it’s sexism in the same way that not voting for someone just because they are a woman would be, I want to be viewed as more than just a pawn in the war for equality among genders. I want people to vote for me because I love space and to be able to have the chance to go would be my greatest dream come true.

    I wish that that could be the spirit of the competition, but then I suppose that Axe wouldn’t really have had an angle in making the contest in the first place.

  16. Stunned

    Tom Billings, I should have been more specific:

    Cyrus The Great banned slavery throughout the Persian Empire some 500 years BCE.

    Second point: The Ottomon Empire really only contained 3 Middle Eastern countries. It’s not right to tar everyone with the same brush! The Ottoman Empire was mostly Balkan and European (plus Turkey).

    The statement still stands. The majority of the global population has never been pro-slavery. Regardless of what wikipedia tells you. And even wikipedia hasn’t said that the majority were pro-slave.

  17. Dan

    OK, there’s been a lot of thoughtful (and wordy) discussion here. Let me just make a couple of simple,short, comments. (1) We all agree, do we not, that the people who produce the AXE commercials are primarily guys who do their thinking with an organ located at the other end of their spine from their brain. (2) I am a male rocket scientist, I’ve worked with more good female engineers than I can count, including a few astronauts, and when all is said and done, the approach AXE has taken is just embarrassing.

  18. Ray

    Are you people serious ?!?! You realize this is a stupid commercial playing on the fantasy of every guy out there. What guy doesn’t want to have girls falling all over him, eagerly offering sex ??? In case you didn’t know it, sex & money run the world. I’m astounded that you’re just figuring out that AXE commercials are aimed at horny guys ? Why weren’t you indignant when AXE commercials showed women losing all control around a nerd who used their product ? Were you equally insulted at the cashew commercials that showed an unattractive woman suddenly being viewed as a supermodel by handsome guys chasing her down the street ?

    If you want to be truly pissed off over blatant sexism & racism, how about getting angry over every commercial that shows white guys as complete morons. If you’re intellectually honest, see how many commercials & TV shows display the white guy as the idiot, especially when compared to a person of color or a woman. Does racism & sexist content only pertain to minorities & women and don’t old white guys deserve the same sensitivity ?

    How about the open war being waged against Christians in every aspect of media. As a Jew, I’m horrified by the blatant attacks and encouraged hatred of Christians and anything to do with God. Since when did God or religion become a 4 letter word ? If the outrageous attacks being waged against Christianity were done to muslims, blacks, mexicans or women, there would be rioting in the streets.

    Your faux outrage over this AXE issue is intellectually dishonest, it’s a myopic view of the world and I’m guessing you need to pick a topic where your moral outrage will do some good. Either that or grow a thicker skin because it’s pretty obvious these AXE commercials are just a goof.

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