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Hold your nose: My olfactory nerve has been Axe-d

Message to the CIA: I have found the chemical weapons. Turns out they've been in a disclosed location - my 12-year-old stepson's bathroom - all this time, stored in a bullet-shaped black aerosol can labeled "Axe."

For those who haven't ventured down the drugstore after-shave aisle since the Carter administration, think Brut on crack. Axe, apparently, is Generation Y's in-your-face answer to Hai Karate.

Saddam Hussein could have only dreamed of this stuff.

Several weeks ago, my stepson asked me to accompany him on a deodorant-buying trip. He wanted my opinion, as a female, on what smelled good.

But as I nosed around the Old Spice and Mennen, Thomas, like a bull to a red rag, headed straight for the cans of Axe, squatting like an arsenal of stink bombs on the drugstore shelves.

One by one, he tested the different "scents" - Orion, Voodoo, Apollo, Phoenix - with macho names better suited for Marvel comics heroes or wrasslin' stars than pheromone babe magnets.

A few squirts later, Aisle 5 looked less like Rite Aid than a World War I trench after a mustard gas attack.

Despite my feminine counsel that girls like to sniff, not gag on, male fragrance, subtlety in scent is a concept lost on a 12-year-old. Thomas, his budding mojo bubbling, walked out of the store one can of Axe Kilo richer.

According to the Axe Web site, Kilo "helps you achieve that warm 'rugged outdoorsman' effect." In reality, it's an olfactory-deadening combo of English Leather, Port-a-Potty chemicals and pine needles. I was just relieved he passed on Axe Tsunami.

I fancy myself fairly culturally hip, but what is this stuff and where did it come from?

Turns out Axe hit the American market in 2002, yet it already commands an astonishing 80 percent of male body spray sales here.

The nose-numbing vapor - which goes on full-strength - is aimed at 18- to 24-year-old men. But a clever marketing campaign has transformed it into an indispensable confidence booster for teeny-boppers assured by Axe ads that the ladies simply can't resist its siren call.

Instructions on its Web site for those befuddled by the notion of spray deodorant read like a script for a National Geographic mating special, complete with graphic how-tos:

"When you wear your favorite scent of Axe on any of your male hot zones, your new and improved male musk is released into the atmosphere, quickly reaching nearby females. This is exciting, as quasi-scientific research has proven women like men who smell good."

It's an old idea: a magic potion that renders a man irresistible to women.

But Axe has added racy new twists, with ads featuring bare female backs dented by elevator-button and steering-wheel marks, as if the deodorant has just triggered a breakneck amorous encounter.

Other devices include throwing Axe-emblazoned thongs in male college dorm dryers, recruiting on-campus promoters to throw Axe parties (hope they have good ventilation) and even giving away downloadable video games on its Web site.

Chicks and video games: the perfect Y-chromosome sales tool for the new millennium.

That alone must explain Axe's popularity, because I've yet to encounter a single female who finds it even palatable, let alone alluring.

Pass a gaggle of high school boys on the make and you are instantly enshrouded in a dense Axe fog.

Or simply walk into the first floor of my house, and hit the wall of Axe that now surrounds my stepson's bedroom. The "long-lasting" scent has permeated the carpet, the bedspread and the paint on the walls.

I can't help but cough.

I asked Thomas what he thinks it smells like. "If you put it on the way they tell you to, it smells like garbage," he said after serious consideration. "But if you put just a little on, it smells like roses."

Behold the power of marketing.

Bronwyn Lance Chester is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. Readers may write to her at The Virginian-Pilot, 150 West Brambleton Avenue, Norfolk, Va. 23510, or send her e-mail at bronwyn.chester@pilotonline.com.