Axe, the Unilever men's personal-care brand known for inciting controversy in the gender wars with ads often deemed sexist, wants everyone to just get along in its 30-second Super Bowl spot—which co-opts the famous old slogan "Make love. Not war" to push a new product line called Axe Peace.
An extended, 60-second version of the spot hit YouTube on Tuesday. The ad, directed by MJZ's Rupert Sanders, travels the globe to various hotspots of conflict, including the Middle East and what's clearly meant to be a version of North Korea. Tensions rise as each scene seems poised to erupt in violence. But instead, each becomes a celebration of love, as the warriors put down their weapons and embrace their wives and girlfriends.
The "Make love. Not war" slogan appears at the end, along with the logo of the Peace One Day organization, which is a partner of the campaign. (Axe is giving $250,000 to the group and promoting it on its website and Facebook.) The hashtag is #KissForPeace.
It's an ambitious message, and its scope in some ways was prompted by last year's frontier-pushing Axe Apollo campaign.
"At the end of the Apollo process, I was like, 'Oh shit, what are we going to do now?' " David Kolbusz, deputy executive director at Axe agency BBH London, tells Adweek. "You hold a global competition to send 23 people to space, then the next year becomes a bit of a daunting task. But the thing that struck me is that we activated that campaign across over 50 markets successfully. And to do that gave us this confidence. It dawned upon us that we could do something good, and use our influence over these markets positively."
Focusing on the topic of war—the visual references here range from Apocalypse Now to Tiananmen Square—is difficult for any brand. And doing so in a lighthearted way runs the risk of seeming to trivialize it, particularly in the context of the very real anxieties over the Syrian conflict and a decade of American wars abroad. But while Kolbusz admitted the spot will have its critics, he said the brand's heart is in the right place, both creatively and through its partnership with Peace One Day.
"You're using hot-button issues in some ways, but you're also using filmic clichés. So, from a creative standpoint, I think it's forgiven," he said. "But in terms of the brand profiting from moments of war, we were very, very determined to make sure we were actually doing good, and that we were effecting positive change. Having a partner was very important to us. … If you can do some good in the world, I think you can forgive the dramatic license we take in the television work."
Asked whether the message of love is believable given Axe's history of celebrating lust, Kolbusz said the brand has been slowly evolving for a while now.
"Some of the work in the local markets has still been using, as we call them in this country, Page 3 models," he said. "But globally we've been very conscious of the fact that we didn't want to do anything sexist. Anarchy was about everybody hooking up, and Apollo was just silly, wasn't it? I suppose you could paint that with the slightly sexist brush. But for me, there was a level of absurdity there that just went beyond. And then, out of New York, the 'Susan Glenn' stuff. And then Brainy Girl, Sporty Girl. It's a theme we've been playing with for a while now, the equilibrium of the sexes. This is just the first time we've done it in this more serious way."
Matthew McCarthy, senior director for Axe and men's grooming at Unilever, said in a statement: "Young people care deeply about the future. This generation is socially conscious and more digitally connected than ever. ... In a world filled with conflict, we know sometimes the most powerful weapon is love. And as the film dramatizes, for one sublime moment a kiss has the power to make the world a more united and peaceful place."
Check out the 60-second spot and print work below. An even longer version of the spot will be posted here later today.
Agency: BBH, London
Deputy Executive Creative Director: David Kolbusz
Creative Team: Daniel Schaefer and Szymon Rose, Jack Smedley and George Hackforth-Jones
Product Designer: Rosie Arnold
Strategic Business Lead: Ngaio Pardon
Team Director: Heather Cuss
Team Manager: Amy Forster
Strategy Director: Agathe Guerrier
Strategist: Shadi-Sade Sarreshtehdarzadeh, Tom Callard
BBH Producer: Ryan Chong
BBH Assistant Producer: Laura Graham
Production Company: MJZ
Director: Rupert Sanders
Executive Producer: Debbie Turner
Producer: Laurie Boccaccio
DoP: Greg Fraser
Post Production: Iwan Zwarts @ The Mill
Editor/Editing House: Neil Smith @ Work Post, London
Sound: Will Cohen @ String & Tins and Factory Studios
BBH Producer: Sally Green
Photographer: Jean-Yves Lemoigne
Model Builders: New Deal Studios