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July 24, 2010

Sell Like a Man, Man

Hello, readers. Look at the picture—now back to the words—now back to the picture—now back to the words . . . where are you? You’re on the Internet, with the social media campaign your next social media campaign could sell like.

By now you’ve probably seen several versions of the successful “Old Spice Guy” ad campaign—which originated with a pricey Superbowl debut. It is, of course, a huge commercial success– PC World touts it as perhaps “the most brilliant ad campaign ever,” Mashable calls it the “archetype of a successful social media campaign,” and even an old media stand-by like NPR reported that Old Spice Guy’s YouTube videos are “being hailed as the fastest-growing viral video campaign of any product in history.”

Perhaps more interesting than the ad campaign’s commercial success are the progressive political props the spots are getting. Writing for The Root (in an article titled “Why the Old Spice Guy is Good for Black America”), Cord Jefferson states that Old Spice Guy bucks the more familiar notions of black masculinity typically portrayed in advertising (you know, hypersexualized, animalistic, and brutish). Jefferson notes, “There was a time when a muscular black man addressing America’s ‘ladies’—not just black ladies but all ladies—in a sexualized tone could have gotten him killed.” Jefferson continues, saying that Old Spice Guy, by contrast, is presented as the “apex of manhood . . . here in 2010, far from being fearful, America is rushing wildly into his sturdy embrace.”

The visual architecture of the ad campaign suggests the ways in which the company is playing with form and expectations. As the towel-clad spokeshunk addresses his “lady” audience, he reminds them of the mediocrity of their own lives: “Look at your man, now back to me . . . sadly, he isn’t me, but if he stopped using lady-scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like he’s me.” Instead of asking you to buy the fantasy, this ad campaign starts with more modest goals.

Mindful, however, of the genre’s expectations (personal product ads always sell the fantasy), the producers poke fun at that, as well, picturing Old Spice Guy as he log rolls in the mountains, waltzes through a gourmet kitchen he built for his lady (and in which he bakes cakes for her), and swan dives into a hot tub that also contains a motorcycle—presumably for him to ride into the next female fantasy. The humor comes not only from the obviously stereotypical nature of the “female fantasies,” but also from the artifice of the production—digital images split in two, staged backdrops topple as he strides confidently from one scene to the next—making the ads a pitch-perfect spoof of the personal product ad genre.

At this point I’m going to confess that I laugh at these commercials—their good-natured goofiness and male (as opposed to female) objectification seem almost as refreshing as body wash that’s not “lady-scented.” However, when I examine them a bit more closely, I see the contours of a more familiar ad narrative.

The  ads rely on stereotypes about women for the humor to ring true. As he strolls across the deck of a boat, Old Spice Guy asks, “What’s in your hand? Back at me. I have it. It’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love. Look again. The tickets are now diamonds!” Everyone knows that even an ideal man wouldn’t know exactly what his women likes, much less like it himself (he’s probably much too manly). And, in a pinch, women just want diamonds—purchased for them by their man and his manly salary.

In another example, The Old Spice web site features this still:

You’ve got the typical sexy woman, placed in a submissive pose, looking adoringly at the man, who is poised to make all her dreams come true (because, of course, women dream primarily about sexual satisfaction—at least when they’re not busy fantasizing about diamonds or cake).  That’s right, we ladies like our manly men any way we can get them—even covered head to toe with shaving cream (yum!) . . . while riding a motorcycle (exciting!) . . . in our bathtub (uh, okay, that’s a little weird).

The disappointment of the Old Spice Guy ad campaign is that the progressive image of black masculinity is only funny—and only makes sense—when it is wedged into another narrative (one as familiar as the racist story that Old Spice Guy tries to displace). Women desire (and are most desirable when conforming to) patriarchal male sexuality.

That narrative is carried through to the YouTube portion of the campaign, where Old Spice Guy (astride the Internet instead of a horse) answers questions tweeted to him: “WSpencer tweets: ‘Old Spice, am typing while running from a stampede of scantily clad female admirers who appeared after trying Old Spice. Is there an antidote?’ WSpencer: this is a common and life-threatening side effect of Old Spice Body Wash.” This ad seems to be an homage to the  Axe Body Spray campaign, which is premised entirely on packs of wild young women who descend on unsuspecting, sexy men.

Even the aforementioned progressive African-American commentator was willing to metaphorically throw women under the bus as he promoted Old Spice Guy’s 21st-century appeal. Jefferson urged that even with “problems with heteronormativity and misogyny–all women love diamonds!—aside, the Old Spice Guy spots are funny in the offbeat and visually exciting manner Internet audiences demand.  . . . That smells like progress, man.”

Ah, the smell of patriarchal masculinity in the morning . . . . (insert the Old Spice whistle here).

Streaming videos and stills available at

Shower/towel image obtained here.

  • Wayne Dickson

    Disclosure: I’m a straight male. I’ve been told by colleagues that I’m absolutely clueless about feminism.

    I don’t know. In the motorcycle picture above, the woman seems to me just as obviously a parody as does the guy. The expression on her face isn’t one of open-mouthed worship. It’s a barely contained smirk.

    BTW, the use of color in this image is intriguing.

    • KVA

      Wayne–you make a good point and my husband agrees. He put it this way: “the ads seem funny to me because the whole pitch is based (knowingly and openly) on ridiculous extrapolations of female desires. I think Old Spice, as a ‘classic’ company, punched Axe right between the eyes by mocking them on an international scale…spotlighting the ludocrity of the Axe ads and the stereotypes they are hinged upon.” On one hand, I totally agree–and I think that’s why the ads have broad appeal. On the other hand, I don’t think that the images of women are as recognizable as paradoy/ridiculous extrapolations, if only because they are the SAME images that comprise most advertising portrayals of women. In those contexts, the images aren’t ridiculous parodies–they’re representations of gender norms in our culture. For more see Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly series of documentaries about women in advertising.

  • Elizabeth

    I think the reason I love this campaign so much (and why the internet feels the same way) has more to do with how the marketers at Wieden + Kennedy used social media so well . They wrote a hilarious parody and then went viral with it, and then went INTERACTIVELY VIRAL with it. Maybe it’s just cause I’m a social media geek, but I think that’s the reason to pay attention to and study these ads as a communication studies scholar — why do people want to participate in their advertising? Why do they want to feel actively acknowledged in ads?

    I feel like at this point taking the critical cultural studies lens on everything is obvious and can be FOUND in just about anything if one looks hard enough. Even that’s been parodied by the tumblr “that is racist” .
    I’d argue, like commenter wayne, that by so obviously referencing hegemonic gender roles and stereotypes, the parody is instead exposing them for what they are — RIDICULOUS.

    And let me tell you, I find the Miller Light campaign in which the men are performing stereotypically feminine acts (the lower back tattoo and the purse) and the women are mocking them way, way more problematic than this. And those do not show women in the typical fawning over a man role.

  • Jon

    A thought-provoking pleasure as always. In addition to the themes explored above, it’s also worth thinking about next to the *other* male body wash campaign that aired during the same Superbowl. I’m thinking of the launch of “Dove Men + Care,” described below:

    “Dove Men + Care Super Bowl Commercial features one man’s journey of unsung moments from childhood to fatherhood in a montage of scenes set to the “William Tell Overture.” The 45-second commercial, “Manthem,” depicts the expectations placed upon men when they are boys, the pressures they face as young adults, and the societal forces they must contend with as husbands and parents. The spot creatively and humorously illustrates the arrival of comfort that men experience when they can finally take it all in stride with their own definition of success.”

    Anybody else remember this commercial? Not exactly the viral success of Old Spice…. (this is the one I bought by the way….”Cool Comfort” scent….

    • bartcopfan

      Yes, I remember the commercial–and liked it also (in addition to the Old Spice one) both for its cleverly accurate depiction of societal expectations placed on men and for the “happy ending” aspect that a man can be comfortable as something less than King or CEO and w/ self-care.

  • tinwoman

    I notice two things:

    1. “real men” mock women’s romantic fantasies and men who try to be sensitive to women’s desire for love are “sissies”.

    2. Women should like you for buying things for them. Not much else.

    Successful ad campaign or not, does ANYONE buy Old Spice who’s not 65 years old? The brand has rather a podgy image. It makes sense that the ad campaign is podgy with a conservative heart–even if it has a shirtless, black male lead.

    Shorter Old Psice, “Dumb broads, but we gotta humor ‘em, you know?”

  • cmac

    It’s obvious to me that the ads spoof stereotypes of both male and female sexuality. It doesn’t work otherwise. Your description of the woman’s pose in the still picture catches the spirit precisely – and that spirit is tongue-in-cheek. The idea of a woman submissively admiring a man dressed only in shaving foam and perched on a motorcyle in her bathtub is not to be taken seriously! I promise!

    • bartcopfan

      It’s obvious to me that the ads spoof stereotypes of both male and female sexuality. It doesn’t work otherwise.


  • Molly

    Wait a minute, wasn’t he sitting on that horse backwards in the ads? That made me laugh even harder….

  • Pingback: Swag as a Commodity « All Black Everything

  • Koko_89

    I like you.

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