March 03, 2010

Ad Nauseam: Old Spice

Time was when Old Spice only needed a man on a surfboard and a chorus from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana to let the world know that this was a smell for seriously rugged men. I’m not sure there was ever any truth in that, but I had no objection to the way it was being pitched. Things have taken a crass turn.

The latest ad, aimed jointly at women who have complete control over the grooming of their men and at men who quiver at the sight of a superior musculature, demands that women make frequent comparisons to the men in their lives and the loosely towelled jock on the screen. Assuring women that they may justifiably give up hope that reality will ever compare favourably to his robust frame, the actor suggests that at least a real man does not have to smell like a woman, or worse. I have previously stated my opinions about the importance of the olfactory sense (Firing up the Ol’ Factory), but I don’t much care for it being sold in this way.

For starters, the appeal to women relies on an extension of the derisory stereotype put forward by the good people at Dodge (Ad Nauseum: Dodge Charger). Women will be wowed by such simple fripperies as tickets to a show (exactly what show is irrelevant because men don’t care about such things, as long as you’re happy and prepared to have sex afterward), diamonds, strutting about on the deck of a yacht, and the sexual connotations of horses. There is no substance in any of this, to the point that women are supposed not to notice that the man here is portrayed as arrogant, narcissistic and conceited. A pleasant aroma will take care of any and all the defects of character, it seems.

Second, are men thought so utterly hopeless that a direct appeal to them is futile? Surely a call to their self-respect and dignity would be better. As I mentioned previously, a man’s smell should be based on the reflection, ‘what does my smell say about me?’ If the answer to that question is simply ‘I do not make choices for myself’ then that is a shame.


  1. Doctor,

    let me raise to your attention some poignant, if mislaid humor: the man you put up for display is acting like he is posing; he talks men as if he were talking shop; indeed, he talks in salesman accents; he moves seamlessly through what must be cliches; - he puts me in mind of a genie in '40s movies. - The humor I point to is the visible manifestation of self-confidence: a handsome man can afford self-ridicule, because beauty sells because it is beauty, with some ambiguity as to what is sold - people are covetous and take beauty if they can. Presumably, a man is not in any danger, but the humor may be necessary to convince oneself one is not doing it for the money, which is exactly what advertising and commerce mean, if I may pin it down. But what does not

    But the humor goes deeper. What really is odd, in despite of the fixation with women being manhandled, is how it protrudes: the man is portrayed as a beloved rather than a lover - and yet he understands himself to be able to supplant for putative lovers' weakness, which is self-serving to say the least. Alas, usual men are smallish, deficient lovers: it seems that men cannot help loving women, but are no good at it. Let's just say that if either truth or fortune were like women, we would never hear the end of it... - If your experience of the world gives the lie to this penetrating insight, then call it effrontery, protest the greatness of male love as our world suffers it to be. Elsewise, do not mock before you refute the point: you strike quickly, being moved, but protest you are not quickly moved to strike, - but this abuse moved you - yet, to move is to stir, whereas to be valiant is to stand (Plato, Laches), and to move is then to run away; you must need mean therefore you are moved to stand! etc.

    Then art makes up for natural impotency: it straightens what otherwise would limp - most men cannot be as handsome and, presumably, as hard & soft as the man you have put up for show; to muskily smell like him is to have a part of him, but only inferior creatures, who are not naturally objects of attention, love, and adoration, will need it; perhaps then the mocking tone I noticed is addressed to these creatures, hardly members of our mighty race. Perhaps the tone lightly pokes fun, without humiliation, at natural deficiency: it pricks desire and pique at the same time. If you cannot allow beauty to stand for natural superiority, then you must desire the virtues of ugliness, which is perverse, or divorce the look of men and their virtues, and that means making small advances usually large - in short, it is bad taste. If you do not think men use perfumes so, you must be a blissful person and of flawless acquaintance, or perhaps you do not stick your nose in women's affairs. If you do not think women wont to be deceived so, you must proudly hold a high opinion of your own manliness, or are overtly gullible.

    Here's hoping you do not blush,

  2. Very upright humour, my dear T.T. Penetrating insights as per usual. It is my hope that the occasional 'inferior creature' reads this and crawls out of the primordial soup, as it were. I will pass over your terminal sentence.

  3. Both of your comments here are great-I suppose you could say that the advertiser hit the mark because it certainly created some controversy. Keep up the good work.

  4. I found this utterly hilarious. Yes it's meant to be a 'Laugh out loud' parody of the other commercials that show similar situations - but actually mean it.
    I think it's a bit of reverse psychology in action, and we're all meant to find it funny and absurd and scoff-worthy...and the little feel good endorphins generated by said laughter are then supposed to make us feel kindly towards the brand and make us want to buy it. All because the advert amuses it must be good...right?
    Advertisers do think everyone is an idiot. It's the first rule of marketing: "people are just have to find your angle"

  5. I would say rather that this is an example of the current sense of humor in the teen/20's target market, characterized by "irony", as the term has come to be defined.

    In the case of this and other such endeavors, the object is to see just how blunt/overt can the ad be (Hot Tub Time Machine also serves to illustrate this point). It's a form of self-parody with an underlying earnestness. People are still titillated (those in that age group, anyway) by this experiment in the extremities of a lack of creative effort or imagination masquerading as a self-aware jab at its own genre. After all, the message comes across even stronger, uninhibited by tact or reason.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Marvin. It is the underlying earnestness of these things that perturbs me.

  7. The international advertising festival at Cannes just took place, and this ad won big. And as someone who works in advertising, I say it deserved it. Here's a commercial that appealed to both sexes, and successfully so. A friend's wife loved the ad so much she tracked the DVR back to watch it a second time, and then bought him a trial size bottle of the product. As far as I can tell, he likes it. He uses it at the gym.

    The fact is, women do most of the shopping and many men don't care much about what soap they use. To appeal solely to men would be a folly for any brand that wishes to make money.

    This isn't the first Old Spice campaign to use exaggerated masculinity. Remember Bruce Campbell striding in front of a never-ending painting of a ship? The brand has to be silly, because it had to come such a long way from being your grandfather's aftershave.

    Well, maybe not your grandfather, VB, but you get my drift.

  8. Thank you for this Hatchett. I remain unconvinced. Why did the friend's wife love it so much? I'm wary of the answer, and suspect that within it will be the reason I don't like the ad. But I shall be happy to be proven wrong.

  9. I avoided what would likely be an awkward moment of asking my friend out of the clear blue why his wife liked a commercial, and instead asked my own wife, knowing that she also liked it.

    She cited two reasons: The first being the over-the-top humor. Not only are the scene changes and situations odd, but the man in it is clearly a caricature of masculinity—not a mockery, but an exaggerated representation. And isn't he? He's fit, confident, charming—qualities you cannot deny are what a manly man strives for, only in real-world quantities.

    The second reason she cited is that it speaks to women in a way they are used to, only about themselves. Ads for female beauty care products are full of women whom are thinner, fitter, taller and all-around better looking than most women see themselves. But, it is implied that if she uses a certain product, she can be attractive in a way that these other women are. The same with Mr. Old Spice. He's attractive—deep voice, muscular body, confident manner and he smells good to boot. Well, if she buys her man Old Spice, he can be attractive in one of the ways that man is attractive.

    The shower, yacht and horse devices are all lifted straight out of romance novel fantasies, she points out, a genre of fiction that outsells almost all others combined. And the tickets to an unnamed event? Say it's the ballet and you risk alienating the NASCAR set, and vice versa.

    It all adds up to awareness for the shopping woman who has been told to "get soap—I don't care what kind."

    None of this may convince you that there's merit here, but I will say there are a lot worse portrayals of men out there, most of them in commercials.

  10. Thank you Hatchet, for this illuminating response. All of your wife's reasonings are sound, of course. An elevated female mind rises above the crassness of it all, I suppose, and sees it as simply funny. For the discerning female purchaser of a man's toiletry needs, I concede that it effectively sells.

    But I then re-direct my annoyance doubly: 1. at the men who cannot be bothered to take an interest in themselves, their own personal hygeine, and the way in which they project themselves aesthetically (this would be your 'get soap - I don't care what kind' man. He darn well should care); 2. at the ad men who implicitly endorse this kind of man's existence.

    Needless to say, this humble blog has an interest in men being manly, and the essential gripe is that the ad in question works against that interest.

    I do appreciate your taking the time to discuss this. And please also thank your wife for indulging us.



Related Posts with Thumbnails