When I described the Axe and Dove ads, and how they demonstrate the need for media awareness, I was only relating the lesson as it was presented in the workshop. I had some other thoughts on the matter. As Kenny points out in the comments, feminist interpretations of things are fraught with contradictions.
Why (Kenny asks) is the Axe ad supposed to be offensive? Can anyone pretend to be surprised to find out that young men (and who are we kidding here – all men) like to look at scantily-clad women? Well, no. I think the most rational feminist explanation would go something like this:
"The ad shows women primarily as sexual objects and not as human beings. The young man on the beach does not know or care who these women are. He is gleefully happy to have any of them, all of them. In that sense, the ad is reaffirming and tacitly justifying a dehumanizing view of half the human race. The women are also portrayed as being sexually enslaved by the technology of a man, reduced to slavering animals by a mere scent, which is degrading and insulting."
All this is true, but it doesn't change the sad and obvious fact that the ad is more or less correctly portraying the real attitudes of men. It is a scientifically established fact that, barring the restrictions of moral codes or established relationships, nearly all men are willing to have sex with nearly any woman. (Consider, for a moment, if an advertisement featured hoards of slavering men clawing their way through a jungle to attack a woman. It wouldn't be funny, because, well, it's too close to the true state of affairs.) Our societal codes of modesty and chivalry are not intended to deny our animal natures – they are very explicit recognitions of our animal nature, and a rational attempt to transcend them by constraining when and how our animal instincts are engaged. So, I agree with Kenny that all men are transfixed by nudity – that's why we don't want to be let advertisers to take advantage of it.
If the Axe ads are offensive, you would think then that most feminists would be champions of modesty. Some are – some even renounce heterosexuality entirely – but they are a minority, I think. Far more feminists see the exposed thigh and breast as signs of a progressive and free culture: women liberated from their slavery to marriage and free to pursue their own pleasures. Feminists want to have their sexual cake and eat it, too: they want to be free to present themselves as sexual objects, and yet not be regarded as sexual objects. To the women who want the freedom to present themselves as sexually attractive beings, I say: great! But don't be offended when men stare at your chest.
My feminist straw-person would probably excoriate the Axe ad but praise the Dove ad as being a positive message for girls. But actually I think the Dove ad doesn't get off that easy. Even though the Dove ad attacks the media-enhanced images of beauty, and tries to praise "real beauty," it's still focused on beauty. In other words, it is still encouraging women to define themselves primarily by their ability to be attractive to men. If you really want to encourage young women, you would break that cycle entirely, and talk about women building businesses and curing cancer. But, of course, this is an ad intended to sell soap, and beauty turns out to be more compelling to young women than mere comfort or healthy hygiene.
Both the Dove and Axe ads are preying upon the sexual insecurities of young people in order to sell stuff. That is understandable; sex sells. I don't think sex is bad. I just want my life, and the life of my children, to be more than just sex. And to achieve that end, I think we would be better off with fewer ads like these.