An ad campaign can define a company – done well, it can provide a completely new identity for a failing company and resurrect it from its falling stock; done poorly, and the campaign can forever associate a company with something negative or laughable. Old Spice is a prime example of how an advertising campaign can change or make a company.  Previous to the  “Smell like a Man, Man” campaign, Old Spice was relatively unpopular, especially with young male consumers. In competing with other, more “hip” companies like Axe, Old Spice had become labeled as too old and not culturally accepted anymore because it felt outdated. Even the name lent to the non-trendy brand.

However, ad agency Wieden+Kennedy stepped in and revamped the brand to give it life, personality, and to appeal to more general audiences. It appealed to young men, old men, and the men in between because it still held onto its reputation of being reliable and “if your grandfather used it…” while giving it new life in Mustafa.  The  “Smell like a Man, Man” campaign launched on February 8, 2010 and began with “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” commercial. All of the ads in the campaign addressed the audience as female with: “Hello ladies.” Each ad essentially compared Mustafa to ‘their man’ – this associated Old Spice with luxury, being fit, and the perfect man. This boosted Old Spice and made it a top contender in men’s hygiene products in that the campaign appealed to all audiences. It was successful because it’s humorous and entertaining and spread like wildfire due to social media. This isn’t to say that it was a perfect campaign, but it was quite effective.


Before delving into the campaign, it’s important to understand why branding is important and how Old Spice created an identity for itself. Branding is the story attached to a product or company, or “the deliberate association of a product not just with a mere name but with an almost spiritual image, an idea” (Banet-Weiser, Lapsansky 1249).  Such brand messages communicate and connect companies or products with “lifestyles, politics,” more than just the usefulness of the product itself (1249). This becomes extremely important in that in this new marketing climate, “brand matters more than the product, and corporations sell an experience or lifestyle more than a thing” (1249). While an advertisement detailing how effective Old Spice is would be useful, it would get lost and overlooked in the midst of over ads which push for a specific idea. There are several aspects of branding: corporations can create identities and personalities to create a face for their product, they must distinguish themselves from other similar products, and branding helps consumers make decisions about future purchases by creating brand loyalty (Leiss et al., 426).

Branding was especially important for Old Spice because deodorant and body wash are fairly common and basic; there are many different kinds and brands that are out there, that all do generally the same thing and smell relatively the same. Old Spice distinguished itself through this campaign by branding the company in such a way that made it slightly cheeky, manly, and overall funny. There is a sense of a young man’s humor, a bachelor, a bro. They played up the “cool” factor that completely changed the face of Old Spice.

Furthermore, branding of a company creates brand community. This is important in that “brand name and package again play an important part, but the product is given special qualities by means of a symbolic relationship that it has to some more abstract and less pragmatic domain of significance than mere utility” (Leiss et al., 175).

Again, there are three main ways in which Old Spice developed their product identity, according to Leiss: they utilized a slogan, personification of their product, and association. In terms of a slogan, for the campaign they heavily utilized “Smell like a Man, Man,” “the man your man could smell like,” and the whistle/jingle that has represented Old Spice for years previous. It was made simple to fit the format of the campaign and has stuck with audiences because of its simplicity. The campaign also utilized personification in giving their corporation the face of Isaiah Mustafa. They created almost a mascot out of him, letting him represent the company in the ads and out of them. Finally, they tried to associate the product with wealth, luxury, classiness, and manliness, even if it is in a way of humor and sarcasm.

But the company acknowledged that the identity Old Spice created for its brand was one that was a little ridiculous. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual quality of the product, but rather the personality that it was given. For example, the Old Spice ad “Scent Vacation” Isaiah Mustafa states “when your man smells like the fresh scent of Old Spice you can go anywhere.” The actual ad doesn’t speak to how the deodorant works or what the scent is actually like. It’s rather about associating with the product, gaining the qualities of Isaiah Mustafa. There is no information about “extra strong ingredients” that make Old Spice particularly more useful than other deodorants, and in a way that lack of information, of obvious selling points is what made it so successful.

Furthermore, what made Old Spice stand out was that it broke through the formulaic ads that were happening around that time. Many times ads all look the same, follow the same format, and don’t veer from that formula too often. There is, therefore, a need to break through that sameness and stand out to catch audience’s attention, to make them buy your product. Such advertising “clutter has been found to erode recall and brand recognition, particularly of those ads placed in the middle of the commercial period…audiences increasingly tuned out or undertook avoidant behavior such as zapping, muting, or leaving the room” (Leiss, et. all 353). In other words, ads began to look so alike and be so similar that viewers simply tuned them out and the commercials blurred together until they were forgotten as space between real television content. Especially as of late, with the new “Generation X consumer” who had become desensitized to the effects of traditional marketing of “most” and “best,” advertisers found an increasing need to be “more open to traditionally taboo advertising topics and techniques. …Ads found their meaning in challenging traditional advertising narratives.” As a result, “the new generation of consumers appreciated the willingness of brands to deflate their marketing seriousness” (Leis et all 492-3). Some of these techniques, to break through said clutter and stand out from the copy & paste commercials, were to play up the aesthetics of the commercial, to include humor, and to concentrate on aspects that did not boast Old Spice as being the “best” or the “most” effective.

In terms of aesthetics, Old Spice commercials are over the top, in a very campy way. It blends the use of luxury items and settings with the idea of construction, with falling backgrounds, slide-in props, etc. There is an obvious construction about certain aspects while still being extravagant (riding backwards on a horse). The quality of the ads in the campaign were also very well done, the backgrounds realistic (until they fell away), and so forth. Editing was well done as well, as demonstrated in the “Questions” advertisement particularly when Mustafa dives into a hot tub wearing khaki shorts and is revealed as wearing jeans and on a motorcycle.

As for humor, Old Spice played up the ridiculousness of the each one of its ads. They don’t try to sell the luxury as real, but rather point out that to expect such outcomes from using a type of body wash is something to laugh about and to poke fun of, especially because it is a tactic often used by other companies. This speaks directly to the audience in acknowledging the commercial culture that we are constantly bombarded with. In a way, Old Spice is saying: “We both know you’re not going to get all of this by using Old Spice so let’s make fun of the people who don’t realize you’re that savvy of a consumer.”

Given these elements, the “Smell like a Man, Man” campaign stood out from its contenders. It wasn’t the typical look at all of these random features of body wash/deodorant, attempting demonstrate how effective it is with overlayed graphics and terms that don’t mean anything to us. Instead, they chose to create a personality that the audience would like and want to associate with. They don’t focus on the product so much as they do the personality and the attitude behind it, and in doing so they created a persona for the audience to not only relate to, but remember. Old Spice’s attitude of wanting to make something that doesn’t really make sense but is funny and will connect with the audience differentiated itself from the competition by having an underlying feel of honesty.

Another factor that catapulted this ad campaign to popularity and success was that it spread across the overnight like wildfire due to sharing the commercial across multiple social media websites. Leiss touches on this, stating that “digital technology emerged in several forms. Bringing several advantages to consumers. One was the ease with which high quality reproductions could be produced; earlier formats had always lost quality when copied” (350). This is important for Old Spice because YouTube played a large role in the ad campaign. The initial ad was uploaded to YouTube, which made it easy to share and distribute. Articles that referenced the ad could include a link, I can embed the advertisement right here and ask you to watch as well. Not only that, but subsequent ads were compiled into a YouTube playlist, making it simple to click-through and watch all of the “Smell like a Man, Man” advertisements.  The sharing aspect of this ad was so easy and so quick that it went viral.

But spreadability wasn’t the only way in which this campaign utilized the Internet effectively. Leiss describes the Internet as a platform for new marketing techniques in that “the Internet fostered not only new media practices but new technological dreams: for some the Internet became the answer to the age-old riddle of how to close the gap between audiences and consumption practices” (342). In other words, consumer interaction. Old Spice did a series of videos as a part of the “Smell like a Man, Man” campaign in which they allowed individuals, from celebrities to normal consumers, to ask them questions on their YouTube channel.

Some of these questions were answered in video form by Isaiah Mustafa in the classic bathroom setup that carried over throughout the ad campaign. In these videos, they were able to maintain the humorous, mildly sarcastic attitude that they developed in the television commercials, therefore driving home for the Internet viewers that persona that had been crafted for Old Spice. In this there was a construction of community and almost an interpersonal relationship between Old Spice and the audience. Leiss further comments on this new effectiveness of Internet advertising in saying that “among the ways the Internet distinguished itself from other mass media was its audience base. Television had been embraced by those of all ages, but the Internet forged a digital divide, as the young, the wealthy, and the West were among its early adopted” (343). Again, with the reinventing of the brand, the target audience was no longer simply middle-aged men or men nearing that age bracket. It additionally targeted young men. Not necessarily youth, but those emerging men, growing out of adolescence. Reaching out to them over the Internet with the message of being a man, stepping out from boyhood and into manhood, helped capture its target audience and made the campaign that much more successful.

However, there were downfalls and other flaws to the campaign as well. Despite its attempts to be different by making fun of our ideals, the campaign still conformed to certain societal norms and in a way reinforced them.

In all of the ads in this campaign, Mustafa is either seen with some luxury item or in a luxury setting. While we have grown to know that the background is fake and is revealed as such as often as possible, it still perpetuates the idea that luxury is something to strive for. The ad “Komodo” depicts Mustafa in a tropical area, signifying vacation, a luxury island, an abundance of money to spend to go and relax on an island in a grass skirt. The campaign’s initial commercial “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” addresses common desire for expensive items by including diamonds, a boat, a horse, a beach, tickets to a show, etc. They all speak to consumerism, and luxury items at that.

Furthermore, this idea of consumption and luxury speaks to a specific connection society has in regards to power. One of these indicators is that “a life of leisure is the readiest and most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength…since application to productive labour is a mark of poverty and subjection” (Veblen 25). While it’s true that the campaign attempts to highlight the absurdity in relating deodorant and body wash to a luxury lifestyle, it nevertheless highlights the way in which we view luxury as something desired.

The interesting thing to note, however, is that the ad campaign in itself puts forth all of these ideals for a product that cannot be consumed publicly. Yes, someone can be seen buying Old Spice or see it in your shower stall, but it cannot be worn around your neck for everyone to see. You don’t necessarily talk about it the way you would about a TV show with your friends. It’s a part of personal grooming that is a part of the private sector of consumption, not public. Perhaps this is why Wieden+Kennedy decided to not focus on the actual product versus creating an identity for the brand. Taking into consideration other ads of similar products, many of them focus on using expensive special effects, awkward voiceovers to a clip of a man looking at himself in the mirror, or elements of that nature.

Even as a lifestyle choice, the campaign isn’t really effective because the audience is assumed to know and realize that a body wash isn’t going to help someone obtain the luxury goods or ideals that are advertised. There is an ironic, sarcastic, somewhat inside joke-like understanding that is communicated in the ads. The ad is not what you will get, but you want to associate yourself with their community, their jokes, their attitude, all the same.

Perhaps this is what makes this Old Spice campaign so complex and effective. There is something to think about, in its cross between high production and soundstage setup. There is irony and sarcasm to be found between those two overlaying elements and as such, propelled Old Spice to the forefront as a contender in men’s body wash and deodorant. The campaign showed that Old Spice wasn’t afraid to address the fact that it had, for a time being, become outdated. Instead of trying to compete with other, younger brands, Old Spice created its own market and in doing so revolutionized the way in which body wash and deodorant would be advertised to consumers.

Works Cited:

Banet-Weiser, Sarah, and Charlotte Lapsansky. “RED Is the New Black: Brand Culture, Consumer Citizenship, and Political Possibility.” International Journal of Communication(2008): 1248-268. Print.

Leiss, William, et al. Social Communication in Advertising. 3rd Edition. New York: Taylor & Francis. 2005. Print.

Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Leisure,” “Conspicuous Consumption.” The Theory of the Leisure Class.  Dover Publications: New York. 1994. Print.