By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006
James Armstrong's got style, and he likes to smell good. Real good. And to smell good, he's got to have his Axe.
"Axe is one of my favorite things in life," he said. "You don't want to be smelling bad in class."
He's 13. He wears outfits, not clothes. And he has one scent for every day.
And one for, well, you know, special occasions.
"Sometimes when you wear it," said Milai Henriet, his classmate at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring, "the ladies will turn their heads at you."
Milai is 12.
Seems that Axe body spray has become the thing for today's discriminating middle school boy. Preteen boys barely registered in the billion-dollar personal grooming market just a few years ago. But analysts say younger and younger boys are snapping up body sprays -- lighter and often less expensive versions of cologne -- in greater numbers than ever before.
Karen Grant, senior beauty industry analyst with the NPD Group, a market research company, said that when workers at her firm began analyzing the market in 2002, they were looking at trends among females, but to their surprise, they discovered teenage boys were also into fragrance.
Moms report being dragged to drugstores to pick up cans of the spray -- in all of its "nine unique fragrances." Principals groan and roll their eyes when asked about the "Axe effect." And physical education teachers? Well, they joke that clouds of body spray have become so ubiquitous that they need gas masks just to make it through the boys' locker room.
"Let me just tell you," said John Burley, principal at Forest Oak Middle School in Gaithersburg, "there are days when I walk down the eighth-grade hallway . . . and I am nearly asphyxiated."
And it is Axe -- launched in France in 1983 and introduced in the United States in 2002 -- that is the brand du jour. Although manufacturer Unilever maintains that its target market is men between 18 and 24, boys as young as 11 are dousing themselves in the spray that "leaves guys smelling great so they can concentrate on more important things -- like how to get the girl."
The suggestion -- that Axe will help with the ladies -- is woven throughout its marketing and advertising and may be why company officials declined to comment on the body spray's appeal to younger teens. Click on Axe's Web site, and it offers this handy factoid: "28% of all males at Spring Break are arrested pantless."
Make no mistake, even among sixth-graders, girls are a big part of the Axe effect.
"I was watching the commercial, and there was this guy and he was mobbed by a bunch of girls, and I thought, 'Wow, that's tight! ' " said Asean Townsend, 12. "So I went to CVS and bought it."
"Given that more men are buying grooming products, it only makes sense that it would filter down to younger boys as well," Grant said.
Axe is not the only brand out there. More established scents -- think Dad's stocking stuffer circa 1975 -- have repositioned their products to appeal to a younger generation. Old Spice has a line called Red Zone. Gillette launched a body spray called Tag in 2004.
But the boys at Loiederman Middle will tell you Axe is their fragrance of choice. "It smells good, and it's cheap," said Nic Weinfeld, 12.
Brett Goyne, a physical education teacher at Loiederman, said he noticed the body sprays turning up about three years ago. Before that, he can't remember seeing a middle school boy use anything except maybe the occasional stick of deodorant.
"It's priced perfect for the middle school student," he said of the body sprays. "But, boy, if they sweat a lot and then put it on -- ohhhh -- it just takes over the whole locker room."
Axe retails for about $5 and has become such a part of James's life that he spends half of his $10 monthly allowance on it. It's so important to him that when asked to paint a still life of four things that were meaningful in his world, he included Axe, along with a CD, some dog tags and a pair of dice.
For mothers who preach the importance of good grooming, the arrival of Axe has been greeted with both horror and amusement.
"It started in my house last year," said Karen Clarkson, who has three boys, ages 6, 11 and 15. "And it has been passed down from brother to brother.
"Earlier this year, my 6-year-old got ahold of it and decided to test it out himself and then decided to spray it everywhere. If you've ever had a quarter of a bottle of Axe sprayed around your house, you know it takes forever to get rid of it."
What's the appeal?
"I wish I knew," Clarkson said. "I was born in the '60s, and we were into the natural and not the overpowering. And there is nothing really natural about" Axe.
Cans of the spray can be found stuffed in jeans pockets and squirreled away in lockers at Loiederman. After gym class, the locker room is often awash in musk, birch leaf and rich vanilla -- the "scent-illating" ingredients found in the various sprays.
"We do occasionally fear they are using it in place of showering," Principal Alison Serino said. "So we encourage them to take a three-pronged approach, with Axe being the final step." (Showering and soap being the first two prongs.)
Eighth-grader Klima Arrola started wearing Axe when he was 11 after seeing a TV commercial in a which a good-looking guy was mobbed by a bunch of even better-looking women. He found the ad appealing, he said.
Now 14, he prefers Axe's Orion fragrance, described in promotional literature as an "aromatic citrus/fruity fragrance with a transparent watery top note composed of minty accents, orange flower, geranium, citrus and musk."
But to Klima, who doesn't have a girlfriend, "It just smells good."
As for the girls, most they say they like the body sprays too -- when used in moderation.
"Someone by my locker uses it, but he uses so much that you can taste it in your mouth," said Allison Testamark, 14, scrunching up her nose in disgust.