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Inside The Axe Space Bro-gram

"Once you look down on Earth you understand humanity and see how beautiful it is." So says one of the guys going into space courtesy of Axe. We visited training camp in Florida to get an up-close look at a brand-backed space program.

Axe boldly went where no male grooming brand has gone before. Starting early last year, the brand's commercials began been telling us “nothing beats an astronaut” when it comes to sexy professions. And that message didn't stop at the expected, and delivered, commercial scenes of improbably attractive women falling all over average dudes. This time, Axe gave people the chance to test the astronaut premise for themselves by sending them into space.

The Axe Apollo Space Academy campaign, by BBH London, culminated last month in 23 people getting the opportunity to venture into orbit. The Axe cadets received their tickets to space, worth $95,000, at a graduation ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral in Florida, hosted by the world’s most famous living astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. They all get a place on board the Axe SXC (Space Expedition Corporation) space shuttle.

The winners were drawn from 107 competition entrants from 60 different countries around the world at the Axe Apollo Space Academy in Cape Canaveral, where they undertook training missions such as mental aptitude and physical fitness tests, and air combat training in fighter jets, to prove they have the right stuff for a space mission.

The Axe astronauts, chosen by Aldrin and a panel of space experts, include U.S. candidate Patrick Carney, a 21-year-old student at the University of Virginia who also runs his own YouTube gaming channel. Carney said the competition presented too good an opportunity to miss: “The fact that you could get to do something that less than 600 people have been able to do, I was like, sign me up.”

The campaign idea started with the product. Every year BBH London is charged with coming up with a new product variant for Axe. This year’s launch, Axe Apollo, and the marketing around it, was inspired by the idea that the guy with the coolest story always gets the girl. ‘”The best story always wins,” said David Kolbusz, deputy executive creative director at BBH. “And there’s probably no better story than ‘I’ve been to space.’”

Along with TV spots showing astronauts effortlessly luring beautiful women out of the arms of lifeguards and firefighters, Axe and BBH launched a global competition offering a trip to space for the winners.

“Everyone’s first reaction was ‘You’re really doing this?'“ said Kolbusz. But signing up the second person to ever walk on the moon to front the competition, helped silence the doubters. “The most thrilling thing for me was getting Buzz Aldrin involved,“ Kolbusz said. “Anything that lent credibility to our effort made it all the more special.”

Entrants to the competition had to to drum up enough votes through social or mainstream media to attend the Axe Apollo Space Academy in Florida. Almost 1 million people entered. The global campaign ran across digital, TV advertising, print, PR, in-store and will be the subject of a TV documentary.

Though the unsurprisingly male-centric campaign got some accusations of sexism, the competition was also open to women. In fact, one woman who entered, a young Malaysian postgraduate student, Roshini Muniam, became something of a feminist icon after withstanding a deluge of sexist comments on her Facebook page.

Muniam defied the naysayers and continued in her quest to become the first Malaysian woman to get to space. Her determination earned her support in her home country and around the world and, though she didn’t win a space ticket, she managed to win the national heats and make it to the finals at Cape Canaveral. Muniam, speaking at the Axe Apollo Space Academy, said: “It was like I wasn’t just doing it for me anymore, I was doing it for women everywhere.”

Four women in total made it to the final round, and two females were amongst the final 23 awarded a space ticket. One of the female winners, Norwegian Tale Sundlisæter, 30, is one of the more experienced Axe cadets, as a senior engineer with the Norwegian Air Force. Another winner, 28-year-old Australian Tim Gibson, had narrowly missed out on his goal to join the Royal Australian Air Force, but now gets to realize a bigger dream. The space trip also fulfills an ambition for the winner from the U.K., Oliver Knight, who recalls a fellow pupil writing ‘good luck becoming an astronaut’ in his high school yearbook, but never imagined that he’d actually make it into space. “I feel amazingly lucky,” he said.

The winners are due to travel to space in 2015 on board a Space SXC shuttle (the date is "dependent on the development of technologies"). The mission will last for two hours during which they will be in space for several minutes and will be able to view Earth.

But even the finalists who don’t get the chance to go to space can boast some unique experiences. During the four-day training camp, the 107 recruits had their mental and physical limits tested by missions designed to give them a taste of what real astronauts go through. As well as fighter jet training, and Zero Gravity and G Force simulation, the recruits met with astronauts Wendy Lawrence and Scott Parazynski, who offered their insights on space travel and developed challenges for them, including a military assault course.

The finalists also shared dorms at the Axe Apollo Space Camp, based at the Kennedy Space Center. They were given flights suits, which they chose to wear even during downtime at the camp—looking like a group of very excited extras from Top Gun. Many can now also look forward to a taste of global fame, as their stories will be the focus of a TV documentary on the contest, created by Radical Media, which will air in 50 countries worldwide from March next year.

For Kolbusz and the team at BBH one of the toughest aspects of the campaign was finding a valid partner to deliver on sending the winners into space, which they eventually did with SXC. “Though idea was loved by all markets, it was an arduous task,” Kolbusz said. “But it’s always exiting doing work of this magnitude and this scale.” Tomas Marcenaro, global vice president for Axe, calls the campaign was “more than just a promotion,” adding: “No other brand has ever created this kind of experience for everyday, real guys and girls.”

It’s certainly an experience that Axe astronaut and university student Patrick Carney, doesn’t expect to forget. “When they announced my name, I was blown away,” he said. “They say once you look down on Earth you understand humanity and see how beautiful it is. That’s the most exciting thing.”

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