Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Smelled like teen spirit.

Our youngest, a strapping lad of 15, has selected his aftershave, an adolescent male rite of passage. He’s picked a tony designer brand, for which I’m proud of him because it evinces some taste. And because it isn’t Axe. It is ever so much more pleasant having a teenager around when they don’t smell like the inside of a taxi.

Axe was an instant cliché. The brand’s proposition was Hai Karate redux: Spray this on yourself and score. And the disarming clarity of that predictably led to a similarly direct advertising strategy: Show a guy spraying this stuff on himself and (almost) scoring. So primitive. So universal. What teenage boy could resist? How could it possibly fail?

Well, of course, for a while there, herds of these lumbering ids bought the pitch. Or, at least, they figured anything that couldn’t hurt and might help was worth adding to mom’s grocery list. Soon, high school corridors reeked of a potent mix of Axe and hopeful testosterone. It got so bad that you began to see news reports of fragrance bans in schools, if you can imagine.

But the flaw in all this was that teenage girls watch TV, too.

What knucklehead really thought that blatantly and publicly telling boys their aftershave was chick-bait was a durable strategy? Not one that knows the first thing about women, that’s for sure. Maybe not even one that’s ever been on a date. As junior junior sagely put it, “Now, girls say, ‘oh, you’re wearing Axe…,’” in the same tone of voice they might use to observe mayonnaise on your chin. Even in grade ten, Axe has become a badge of desperation.

Well, I’m enjoying this all very much. Especially since, this week, a sensation at the Cannes Festival of Utter Social Irrelevance is an exhuberantly puerile promotion for Axe (called Lynx elsewhere). Quoting from the award show entry: “Lynx's problem was that guys 17-25yrs were dropping out of the brand because they perceived it to be for their younger brother (sic). Lynx needed to actively engage 17-25yrs males.”

Might be too late, boys. It seems the girls those guys are trying to impress are on to your game. And so are their little sisters.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Payback Mountain.

I read this week in Ad Age that Ralph Lauren (the corporation, not the guy) is discontinuing his jeans (the ones they sell, not the ones he’s wearing). Someone from Lauren confessed that the brand had simply been bled dry by overpromotion and overdistribution. Well, true dat, as the young people say. But I wonder if there was a bit more to it.

For decades, Ralph Lifshitz imagined, invented and nurtured a mythic America that never was, and then invited everyone to immigrate and buy clothes there. And you didn’t even need a passport to cross the border. Just a credit card and a willingness to surrender your individuality to become a mannequin in Ralph’s diorama. In my mind, the apogee of all this was the 1980s, an era when everybody was pretty much okay with joining socioeconomic glee clubs and wearing their prescribed uniforms. People willingly sported the little pony logo as a badge of sophistication or aspiration, if you can imagine, oblivious to the brand’s true positioning, which I will now reveal:

Polo Ralph Lauren was Garanimals for yuppies.

(Remember Garanimals? Children’s clothes for people who are terrified by Gap Kids. All you have to do is make sure each day that all of little Biff’s or Muffy’s clothes have the same animal label – a giraffe, say - and you’ll know they match. Much easier than figuring out that whole plaid versus stripes thing.)

This consensual self-delusion continued for Polo for about as long as it did for society at large. Then, in the 1990s, it ended like a parade going over a cliff. Authenticity became the new black, for brands and for folks. Everybody ran screaming from affectation, and the cooler you were the faster and further you ran. Pretty soon, you could get Ralph’s natty duds at The Bay. Could “overpromotion and overdistribution” be far behind? And will it end with Ralph’s jeans? Or is this just part of the long, slow, inevitable fading away of a brand that was never more than a mirage.

Well, I can personally guarantee you that no actual cowboys wear Polo jeans. Not one. And I know about these things. And I’ll wager that the same absence of the Polo badge could be observed at the prep schools, Hamptons beach houses, English country estates and Virginia horse farms to whom that silver haired smoothie owes a debt of inspiration.

It’s only a matter of time before everybody quits you, Ralph. You can’t dine out forever on an invented past.

Now, if somebody would just tell that to the Roots boys, I’d be a happy camper.