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(Sniff) Does Your Tween Reek of Macho?

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Jan Hoffman for The New York Times: One bathroom in Stefanie Mullen's home in a suburb of San Diego is stocked with enough products to line an aisle in a drugstore:

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Body wash. Face wash. Exfoliator. Exfoliating wash. Body hydrator. Body spray. Deodorant. Shaving cream. Shampoos and conditioner. Hair gel, of course.

All told, 18 different containers.

They belong to her sons Noah Assaraf, 13, and Keenan Assaraf, 14. They have been dousing themselves for years.

"Every day they walk out the door in a cloud of spray-on macho," Mrs. Mullen said.

When boys pile into her car, that's her cue to roll down her window, no matter the weather. "The smell drives me nuts."

In some respects, there's nothing new about the allure that grooming products and colognes hold for young men, promising to heighten their sex appeal and overall confidence, giving them cover to preen.

But in recent years, the products, ostensibly marketed to older teenagers, have reached into the turbulent, vulnerable world of their little brothers, ages 10 to 14.

Mike Dwyer, brand development director for Axe, the bane of parental olfactory nerves, said, "We're clear that the Axe target is 18-to-24-year-old guys, but we recognize that we have older and younger users."

Hard sales figures for tweens are difficult to come by. Marketers don't have a consensus for what makes up the tween age bracket. Purchases are often made by mothers, simply relieved that their sons are thinking about body odor. And nothing would make older teenager run from a product faster than for its manufacturers to acknowledge that it's a must-have among the sixth-grade set.

But many psychologists, parents, market researchers and middle-school principals (with drawers full of confiscated spray cans), report a sharp surge in the last few years of the use of grooming products by tween boys. In a December 2007 report on teenage and tween grooming products, Packaged Facts, a market research firm, projected that worldwide retail sales for boys ages 8 to 19 would be almost $1.9 billion.

Perhaps more telling: Axe and its ilk have even become essential props in the latest tween novels, like Rosalind Wiseman's "Boys, Girls and Other Hazardous Materials."

The surge is certainly due in large measure to new marketing strategies.

While the public's attention will be on testosterone-infused commercials during the Super Bowl next Sunday, these brands have long been attracting boys elsewhere, through muscular, below-the-radar tie-ins -- on social networking and Web gaming sites, and through endorsements by hip-hop stars, pro athletes and extreme-sports daredevils.

Boys themselves, at a younger age, have also become increasingly self-conscious about their appearance and identity. They are trying to tame their twitching, maturing bodies, select from a growing smorgasbord of identities -- goth, slacker, jock, emo -- and position themselves with their texting, titillating, brand-savvy female peers, who are hitting puberty ever earlier.

And armies of researchers note that tween boys have modest disposable incomes, just fine for products that typically sell for less than $7.

"More insecurity equals more product need, equals more opportunity for marketers," said Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University.

For "Gen Buy," a new book she co-authored about marketing to tweens and teenagers, Ms. Yarrow held focus groups with boys. "The 10-year-olds are copying the 14-year-olds, trying to be cool," she said. "Everything is moving down the spectrum. It's getting younger and more pronounced."

So boys are turning to hypermasculine guideposts like Instinct from Axe, Swagger by Old Spice and Magnetic Attraction Enhancing Body Wash by Dial with results that are poignant, comic, confused -- and stinky.

"It's not necessarily a hygiene thing," said Paul Begley, a physical education teacher at Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, Me. "If they've been sweating, they'll use it as a mask instead of a shower."

Like girls, boys criticize their own bodies at earlier ages. Ms. Wiseman, the writer, said, "As a teacher, I saw boys as young as 7 refusing to take off their shirts at swimming pools for fear of being teased about being fat."

During "the talk" about puberty in fifth grade health classes, many schools hand out sample cans of deodorant to boys. Shortly after receiving one, Lori Swedelson's son, Eric, now a sixth grader in Mahwah, N.J., began asking for products:

"He said, 'Can you get me Axe? I need deodorant,' " said Ms. Swedelson, who asked him why. "He said, 'Ma, I got a hair under my arm!' And I said, 'Let me put my glasses on.' "

He too now steeps himself: colognes, shampoos and body washes. And he is very picky about his choices.

"I got the wrong color can of Axe," Ms. Swedelson said. "Holy cow."

Each bottle signifies something to tweens, who are excruciatingly aware of brand image. George Carey, head of Just Kid Inc., a market research firm, said, "More of the brands that market to kids are doing so by trying to own a human value or characteristic."

LIKE the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter books, the bottles and cans telegraph how a boy can sort and identify himself. Old Spice advertisements for its Swagger line featured the rap star LL Cool J as a nerd in school, then being transformed into his fabulousness by you-know-what. Anthony's Body Essentials are available in Energy, Strength, Spirit and Courage. Abercrombie & Fitch's popular cologne: Fierce.

Why does Jake Guttenberg, a Manhattan seventh grader, use an Axe spray? "I feel confident when I wear it," he said.

Lyn Mikel Brown, a psychologist at Colby College and an author of a new book, "Packaging Boyhood," said the products gave boys the mere illusion of choice. In fact, she said, they often preach an extreme, singular definition of masculinity -- at a time developmentally when boys are grappling uneasily with identity.

"These are just one of many products that cultivate anxiety in boys at younger and younger ages about what it means to man up," Ms. Brown said, "to be the kind of boy they're told girls will want and other boys will respect. They're playing with the failure to be that kind of guy, to be heterosexual even."

Even when advertisements are supposed to be crudely humorous or satiric about masculinity -- approaches recommended by market researchers to reach high school boys -- younger boys take them more literally, Ms. Brown said.

To engage boys, marketers rely less on 30-second TV spots than on interactive Web sites, creating communities of young fans. Tag has a page on Facebook. Axe has an avatar in Pain, a PlayStation game. Swagger sponsors Xbox team competitions. Dial for Men offers advice from "sexperts." Brands create downloadable apps, have lengthy "advergames" on their Web sites, and urge fans to text friends with coy messages about the products. They make commercials just for YouTube, which is, in turn, filled with commercials made by boys themselves -- some of whom are self-anointed reviewers.

"Girl repellent!" said one boy, holding up a spray can in front of a camera.

Parents, generally, are clueless.

"Axe has commercials?" Ms. Swedelson asked.

What further drives the boys' rush to the products are girls themselves. Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the market research firm NPD Group, said that in a recent survey, 41 percent of boys ages 8 to 18 said that one of their best friends was a girl.

"They shop with girls, and girls influence them," Mr. Cohen said, much as the girls in the hit Nickelodeon tween show "iCarly" hold sway over Freddie, their hapless male buddy.

"Boys are paying attention to personal brands more than ever because it's too easy to be criticized virally by a girl," said Pat Fiore, a market consultant for body image products in Morristown, N.J. "The peer pressure is starting from the girls, who are discussing how much someone smells or what they look like, and it's being recorded in real time by e-mail and texting."

These girls are also becoming sexualized at earlier ages, applying lip gloss and wearing racier clothes. Boys, a bewildered developmental step or three behind, feel additional pressure to catch up.

Ms. Wiseman, who also wrote "Queen Bees & Wannabes," a nonfiction book about the social pecking order of tween girls, speaks with students around the country. Even in rural North Dakota, she said, 12-year-old boys were highlighting their hair, a focus on appearance that was almost nonexistent five years ago.

"We consistently look at boys in a position of privilege and power," she said. "But if you ask a 12-year-old boy if they're in a position of power, they feel out of control of themselves, their bodies." She added: "I defy anyone to tell me that an eighth-grade girl doesn't look like she has more power and control than a boy."

SO while men's colognes have been marketed since at least the last century for their irresistibility to women -- even Joey Bishop was swarmed when he wore Hai Karate aftershave in a 1960s commercial -- Axe's similar approach offers a jokey safe haven to a tween boy: you can have power over those frightening, provocative creatures, those girls. Small wonder that a boy would love to believe those magic powers promised by a pheromone-infused product are real.

Kristen Gilbert, an assistant principal at Waterville Junior High School, in Waterville, Me., who has impounded her share of spray cans, wrote in an e-mail message that when she asked a young student why he wore the product, he replied, "I have to have it, Ms. G., because I don't have the money to dress the right way. This is all I can afford."

The boy added that the body spray was his "best chance to get a girl."

With consumer researchers pumping out reports on strategies to attract tween boys -- make them feel accepted by peers, yet make them feel like cool individuals -- and the success, over all, of the expanding, multibillion dollar male grooming products industry, the market is hardly saturated.

A shopper browsing the aisles of a Perfumania, a discount fragrance chain, can find products that allow boys to start brand attachments and grooming habits even sooner than the tweens.

SpongeBob SquarePants Eau de Toilette Spray for Boys, anyone?

Read more stories moms are talking about.



next: Late Stayers: The Breeders Edition
4 comments so far | Post a comment now
Wendi February 1, 2010, 2:43 PM

Well I encourage my 13yr old to smell good. I tell him to use it. I see nothing wrong with it. He is not the least bit interested in using it to get girls, he could care less. We just don’t like the stink of him without all of it.

Stan February 1, 2010, 4:43 PM

If these products are to be used AT ALL it should be in moderation. The only one who should smell it is someone who is close enough to actually be in your personal space.

There are many people out there who have chemical sensitivities, and many more who suffer from asthma. Strong perfumes and colognes can spark an asthmatic attack, put someone in the hospital, or worse.

It is bad enough that strong odor, even of perfume, is a turnoff. It is worse when you put someone’s life in danger for your vanity. Try bathing instead. It works.

Anonymous March 25, 2011, 11:06 AM

Hack again?!

rain boot April 8, 2011, 6:16 AM

Hack again?!


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