I’m sure many of you are familiar with Axe cosmetic products. They make body spray, shower gel, deodorant sticks and other scented items for male grooming. Axe, along with such competitors as ‘Tag’ and ‘Bod’, run advertising campaigns infamous for their over-sexualized images of men and women. The basic premise of most commercials is that young men who bear these products will be swarmed by droves of uncontrollably horny women. Axe’s newest product, Dark Temptation is no exception. The ad campaign features a young white man who, after spraying himself with Dark Temptation, is transformed into the one thing women cannot resist: a Black man. Well, kind of. While he is phenotypically Black and will inevitably have more trouble hailing a cab in New York city, the tantalizing subject of Axe’s ad campaign is actually intended to be a Chocolate man (watch the commercial here).
Axe’s product statement is clear: through Dark Temptation, any average-Joe white guy can go from being milk dud to a chocolate stud. This is a variation of same idea behind their entire line of cosmetic products. The question on the table is: does Axe’s use of a white-turned-Black (or chocolate) colored man in their Dark Temptation ad campaign resurrect a centuries old tradition of fetishizing Blackness in American popular culture?
Initially I was skeptical, but my sister pointed out to me that we can not look at this guy’s transformation from white skin to brown skin, in a vacuum. Whiteness has historically been associated with cleanliness, purity and chastity in American popular culture, while Blackness has often been associated with being dirty, bad or promiscuous. Just look at Disney movies – even when no race is given, the villains (Scar, Ursula, Jafar) are always darker than the heroes (Simba, Arielle, Aladdin). Black men and women have been over-sexualized in American popular culture for centuries, often as a rationalization for sub-human treatment. Lynch mobs would castrate and hang Black men, and rape Black women, for our imposed inability to control an insatiable lust. This was epitomized in the inhuman treatment of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, dubbed Hottentot Venus by her 19th century European captors. Before television perpetuated vicious sexual stereotypes about Black men and women in movies and music videos, African women such as Baartman were exhibited as sexual sideshow attractions. It looks a little different when we contextualize “Dark Temptation” alongside historical portrayals of the Black libido in American popular culture.
On the other hand, I think Axe is representative of a lot of American companies whose advertising dollars target heterosexual, twenty-something males. Sex sells with this demographic, and while I do see allusions to the erotic nature of being Black-skinned in the “Dark Temptation” commercial, the chocolate man in question actually maintains the facial features and hair texture of a European, white man. Therefore, one could conclude that Axe’s portrayal of a chocolate man does not have any racial connotations at all, intentional or unintentional.