Old Spice: Champions, Losers, Trophy Wives, and the Bizarre
By: Joe Einsig
Old Spice is one of the modern day champions of rapidly-paced advertising that features impossible situations and outlandish humor. We all have had a hearty laugh over the crazy scenarios presented to us by Wieden & Kennedy’s creative team. But behind the laughs and seemingly harmless jokes, there lies the possibility for problematic messages that often pass through the screen without a second thought. To start this analysis, I want to reference a quote from Goldman & Papson’s “Ads in the Age of Accelerated Meaning,” an article that I will quote extensively throughout this piece.
“Once the commercial narrative framework is accepted as unproblematic, we are able to decipher and evaluate the combinations of meanings that commercials advance as potential sign currency. We rarely pause to consider the assumptions imposed by the advertising framework since our attention is usually fixed on solving the particular riddle of each ad as it passes before us on the screen; just as importantly, our attention is usually fixed on the question of whether or not we like the ad. The vast majority of ads offer viewers few satisfactions from deciphering; but the few ads that do excite decoding pleasures place their products in line to realize profitable sign values.” (Goldman and Papson 81.)
While indulging in or studying the “Believe In Your Smellf” campaign, all of the main points brought up in this quote can be checked off. Old Spice utilizes a sporadic, rapid technique that has been rendered understandable by the speed at which we consume ads today. The rapid turnover of images and symbols “has contributed to an important cultural shift, the ‘substitution of referential density for narrative coherence.’ Referential density means that frames become packed with multiple referents minus unifying threads that give the viewer clues about their relationships” [Goldman and Papson pg. 93).
The ads contain such bizarre imagery and a seeming lack of coherence that we often don’t consider the implications of what’s being said. Goldman and Papson noted this phenomenon, and many of the techniques they pointed out show up in Old Spice’s ads: “Accelerated editing, a refusal to obey sequencing conventions, and a devotion to supermagnified close-ups–all place greater emphasis on the isolated signifier whose meaningfulness is now divorced from the contexts that initially gave meaning to it.” [Goldman and Papson pg. 93]). We also neglect to consider the implications of Old Spice’s ads’ messages because so often we get caught up in the humor and absurdity of the ads, noting to ourselves that we enjoy the humor, and that because of that whatever they’re saying is harmless. This all ads up to a perfect storm in which we project the values and attributes of the protagonist in the ads onto the bodywash or deodorant, thus differentiating the product. Essentially, we make Old Spice bodywash and deodorant out to be more than it is. We give it extra value, sign value as G&P tell us: “A sign value is generally equal to the desirability of an image. A sign value establishes the relative value of a brand where the functional difference between products is minimal” (Goldman and Papson pg. 84)
If Old Spice is able to utilize techniques such as referential density, parody, and sporadic narratives to push their products through the transference of desirable qualities, what are some of the possible implications in regards to what those messages are actually encoding? Several issues arose during my analysis. First, as is the case with many advertised products, is the promise of success through the purchase and use of Old Spice instead of through action and effort. While this is a notable issue, I think it is one that has quite often been discussed in the analysis of advertising, and as thus won’t be focused on as much as the other issues that I found with the campaign, namely the oversimplification of roles of masculinity and femininity, the objectification and trophy-fying of women, and the parodic twist on the “male as loser” role often associated with beer ads.
Now that we have identified some of the strategies that Old Spice uses to create commodity value for their products, and some of the underlying problematic messages that get propagated through their ads, let’s address those issues and strategies more in depth with actual examples from Old Spice’s “Believe In Your Smellf” campaign.
Let’s start with a shorter commercial ad as there’s a bit less to process. At a short 15 seconds, there doesn’t seem to be much time or potential for problematic issues and messages to arise. But instead of just assuming that nothing problematic could arise, let’s force ourselves to ask the question “What’s wrong here?”
To start, the woman is portrayed as the prototypical “hottie” that is objectified as a sort of trophy for the man to win. “Hotties” are very common in advertising, and they’re more or less typecast and fitted for one purpose. When attractive women “appear in ads, it is usually as highly sexualized fantasy objects. These beautiful women serve as potential prizes for men’s victories and proper consumption choices. They sometimes serve to validate men’s masculinity” [Messner & Montez de Oca pg. 1887].) Interestingly enough, the male here (Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings) is also portrayed as a simplified and sexualized object. Neither gender can escape the narrow lens of objectification in this case. That being said, there certainly is still a power dynamic shown that favors the male.
Another issue with this ad is that it suggests that “you can too” pleasure a beautiful woman while doing pushups with several hundred pounds on your back, or through more practical sexual measures, simply by using Old Spice bodywash.
After forcing ourselves to take a closer look, we’ve identified some problematic themes that arise in this short ad. But that alone is not enough. We need to ask why these issues seemingly fly over our conscious minds when we view them in a more natural setting. This ad veils the rather blunt claim that “using Old Spice can lead to pleasuring attractive women” by presenting us with a bizarre scenario: a guy doing push ups on a concrete slab (while wearing cleats, seemingly impossible on its own) on the beach with a jet ski on his back-and one that a woman is seated in. Now Greg Jennings is a spectacular athlete, but not that spectacular. The absurdity of the situation consciously distracts us from the message while prodding us to buy in because we’re amused.
This “ad” isn’t so much problematic as it is bizarre. Again we’re dealing with another jet ski, but this time on top of a mountain. Old Spice seems to have made a conscious effort integrate the jet ski in bizarre scenarios into their “look,” which “has become an essential element of currency production because escalating market competition has made it renewable, ephemeral, and disposable.” [Goldman & Papson pg. 86]). Jet skis are often associated with fun, water sports, leisure, and expendable income- all aspects of the lifestyle Old Spice implores us to reach for. Because of that positive alignment, Old Spice has gone out of their way to make that association between themselves and the jet ski, to the point now where it’s more or less common knowledge that if you see a jet ski, you’re probably looking at an Old Spice ad.
In terms of strategy, Old Spice is definitely playing towards the medium they’re operating in here, utilizing the filters of Instagram and the “photoshop culture” of the internet. If this image ran as a print ad, it may be perceived as shoddy and not quite of an expected quality. But because we’re on the internet where photoshop is often implemented in creating humor, this ad is certainly passible.
“I Can Do Anything”
Old Spice speaks to their target audience in a peculiar way when compared to the “loser” labeling beer commercials employ. By “loser” I mean “men that are often portrayed as chumps, losers. Masculinity-especially for the lone man-is precarious. Individual men are always on the cusp of being publicly humiliated, either by their own stupidity, by other men, or worse, by a beautiful woman” (Messner & Montez de Oca pg. 1887). Old Spice subverts this labeling by portraying men in their ads as confident, successful, and primarily alone-but never afraid. The man is never in danger of humiliation and always is in control. Which seems like it would be favorable for men, right?
No, not really. There is an understanding between the ad and the viewer that there is a large element of parody involved in these ads, and that Old Spice won’t actually make you the perfect man-but you’ll need Old Spice to even come anywhere close to it. In other words, we can all laugh at your ineptitude in failing to be this perfect man, but you’ll need Old Spice to be passable. So ow does all that relate to this ad? The ad actually shows us that men need Old Spice (the “walkman”) in order to become hyper-successful. Before using Old Spice, you’re nothing more than a frail, skinny guy. But immediately after you start using it, you’ll start to see results. And in no time, you’ll be packing on muscle, picking up chicks in eco-friendly sand cars, and winning horse races-on foot. Again, it’s all parodic, but the humor covers up the message-you need Old Spice in order to succeed.
The issue of female objectification and rejection comes up again here as well. Even actress Heather Graham cannot escape the imminent transformation from desirable “hottie” to dump-able “bitch” (Messner & Montez de Oca).
This ad is more or less a snapshot of the previous commercial ad. That being said, this ad again implies that Old Spice products are the key to achieving success, which Marx would be quite critical of. And again, the success is parodied, but the message is still there.
Ad #5-“Never Again”
This ad is another example in which humor and a bizarre event eclipses the fact that a woman is being displayed as nothing more than a trophy wife. Other than the brand slide at the end of the spot, there is absolutely no correlation between the events in this commercial. There isn’t even an allusion to the idea that Old Spice can get you the mansion, tux, and trophy wife. But because it’s humorous and we recognize the style and whistle at the end, we associate the positive feelings of humor with the brand.
This ad is unique to the campaign as it features some typical “losers’ who presumably don’t use Old Spice. They can never hope to become “stars” in “their own movies,” because they don’t use Old Spice. For us, the choice is simple: use Old Spice and be a star like Greg Jennings, or don’t and either be a figurative tree or dog in the background of someone else’s exciting life. This ad is also unique in that it totally breaks through the 4th wall of advertising. The other ads allude to the fact that they’re ads with their parodic styles, but this ad pulls the camera back and shows you that we are in fact on a studio set. G&P frame this point well: “Where advertisers once sought to maximize the transparency of the framework, they now try to jar viewers into interpretive quandaries as a way of keeping them engaged in the ads. Some ads humorously caution viewers to remember that a sign is just a sign, and not the product itself” (Goldman & Papson pg. 83).
Old Spice utilizes a number of tactics to create a brand identity and differentiating value for their product.Among these are the use of parody, the re-contextualization and re-appropriation of images, and the promises of success and attractive women. These tactics create a positive relationship between the humorous Old Spice and the viewer that gets transferred to their products.
These tactics also cover up some of the issues that Old Spice’s campaign contains in terms of what’s actually being said, including the objectification of woman, the unrealistic expectations of the “perfect man” (and the mockery of men who can’t reach said unreachable ideal), and the falsehood that a bodywash or deodorant is all that separates the average man from greatness.
I don’t believe that the Old Spice ads or the “Believe In Your Smellf” campaign are intentionally sexist or offensive. That being said, we as consumers of media and goods must be cognizant of the messages that lay behind the humor of today’s advertising landscape.
Goldman, Robert, and Stephen Papson. “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 4 May 2013.
Messner, Michael A., and Jeffrey Montez De Oca. “The Male Consumer as Loser: Beer and Liquor Ads in Mega Sports Media Events.” N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.