What I Learned From Watching 180 Deodorant Commercials

by Joe Berkowitz


People have been wondering for a long time what comes after anti-marketing marketing. When commercials began to target the people who hated commercials-these attempts were almost indistinguishable from SNL spoofs-it seemed like we’d reached the final frontier. Then there were stealth viral vids and customized social media ads straight out of Minority Report. But it wasn’t until this week that somebody finally put it all together. I won’t insult the effectiveness of this campaign by pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about.

It all started with a Super Bowl commercial, one that has since gone on to rack up, on Youtube alone, over 13 million views. Old Spice used sharp humor, a snappy pace and a post-modern self-awareness designed for maximum appeal to… pretty much everybody. While the chiseled, shirtless Old Spice Guy is ostensibly addressing female viewers, the tagline of the ad campaign is “Smell like a man, man.” (It’s the perfect mixed address: as with many other Procter & Gamble products, the marketers know that a significant portion of “men’s products” are chosen and physically purchased by women.) More commercials soon followed, including the completely bananas “Flex” spot, which goes full meta when the commercial itself is (briefly) not allowed to end.

After that, Old Spice’s Twitter feed began responding to random people who mentioned these commercials. Although these responses could be funny at times, this level of engagement was not particularly remarkable in 2010, a time when TurboTax and Jet Blue and Chase bank do the same. But then, at around clock-in time this Tuesday morning, a couple of teasing dispatches went out. “Today could be just like the other 364 days you log onto Twitter. Or maybe the Old Spice man shows up @OldSpice,” read the first one. Then: “The Old Spice man/guy on a horse is everywhere today, and he’s just getting started.” That’s when the videos started showing up: brief 15- to 45-second ads featuring the OSG, shirtless as ever, standing in his bathroom-only now he was addressing specific individuals.

At first, the personalized replies were directed at people like Kevin Pereira, host of channel G4’s Attack of the Show, who had said kind things about the most recent Old Spice spot, and who’d had the pitchman himself, Isaiah Mustafa, on the show as a guest.

It started getting weird when a second video, made for Olympic athlete Apolo Anton Ohno, emerged; it thanked the athlete for thanking the OSG for the morning’s first video.

Then videos began hitting random commenters on Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook. They went to bloggers, celebrities, people that social media marketers would classify as “social media mavens.” The speed was impressive. For example, Twitter user @CaitieKendall made a comment at 12:06 p.m. on Tuesday asking the OSG to say her name, and her ad showed up online at 12:57 p.m. The planning must have been terrific: when you personalize videos to Guy Kawasaki, Digg founder Kevin Rose (twice), and the co-creator of Twitter, then you’re clearly not messing around. The fact that Old Spice bothered to purchase a Promoted Tweet spot on the Trending Topics, as an insurance plan, no doubt, was completely redundant; advertising like this was publicity unto the advertising itself.

On the celebrity front, the OSG shouted out Ashton Kutcher, Ryan Seacrest and Geroge Stephanopoulos. He also hit on Christina Applegate and Alyssa Milano, and whacked a piñata with a fish for Demi Moore. He actually seemed to have a special thing for Alysa Milano, sending her the most videos of anyone during the whole ordeal (four), and even sending her actual, non-virtual flowers. Any reasonable person would be right to ask whether these celebrities were in on the campaign and played along. Maybe that did happen, but it’s just as easy to picture Christina Applegate genuinely being a fan of funny TV ads, and sending out a tweet hoping for a response. When brand meets brand!

Rewarding people for spreading your message is the new name of the marketing game. It’s so easy to make a commercial pitchman “famous” now that even the actually famous, who are presumably less easy to impress than mere mortals, what with all the Hollywood coke orgies-well, to have them also want to be rewarded in the same way as “regular people” is unprecedented. And the ads were absolutely about “rewards.” After one Youtube commenter suggested that these ads should win an award, the OSG suggested that the commenter himself should win an award for “the Best Man on the Internet Who Likes My Old Spice Spots On the Internet”. (Then he pulled out a trophy and promised to engrave it.) In a video addressed to actor David Blue on Twitter, Isaiah thanks David for spreading the word about Old Spice commercials on Twitter. It can’t get more self-aware and post-anti-marketing than that. (Or can it?)

I watched all 180 of the Old Spice commercials that were made. Here are some highlights:

• One dude asked his girlfriend to marry him via the OSG, a move which will likely prove hilariously short-sighted, but is still more original than a Yankee game jumbo-tron.

• Someone on Twitter promised to name his first-born child after the OSG in exchange for a personalized video, and he got exactly that: a video addressed to his future son.

• In one of the stranger moments, the OSG held up a random crown and a jewel-encrusted scepter, while intoning just the words “random crown” and “jewel-encrusted scepter”, in a video addressed to “anonymous,” which has so far been viewed 400,000 times.

• Some guy who posted the grammatically questionable Youtube comment “Best thing I’ve ever seen since long time,” got his name written in “the book of enchanting, successful people who are winning in life.”

• A YouTube commenter was mocked for how many letters he used to spell “ha ha.”

• In one nicely played move, in response to random Twitter user @part_number, who pointed out that these video responses are even crazier than Burger King’s Subservient Chicken ads, the OSG responds that he does remember that chicken, and it was delicious. You got served, etc., BK.

• A response to a tweet from Gillette makes a point of preemptively denying that there is any cross-promotion between Old Spice and Gillette, thus beating the cynic to the punch.

The fact that this all culminated in a video addressed to the OSG actor Isaiah Mustafa himself is perfect. Gabe Delahaye at Videogum, who also received a personalized video earlier in the day, accurately summed it up as the moment when the internet exploded. Old Spice then took this meta-angle just a little too far in the direction of cheesy when OSG responded to Hayley Mustafa, Isaiah’s daughter, who wrote on Twitter to ask why Isaiah looks like her dad (ugh.)

But the absolute last we heard from OSG, at least until he makes the inevitable talk show rounds through next week and we all get as sick of him as I am at this moment (you have no idea), came at 3 a.m., with an amusing sign off. In it, Isaiah is seen wearing a plethora of ribbons and medals and holding a chainsaw, talking about riding his “jet ski lion” into the sunset.

Here is some hard data on who these videos were made for:

Celebrities addressed: 16

Bloggers addressed: 28

Reddit users : 9

Youtube commenters: 26

Facebook users: 24

Twitter users: 61

Yahoo Answers: 4

Media gurus: 7

“The Internet”: 3

Isaiah Mustafa, himself: 1

Hayley Mustafa: 1

In an insipid, fawning interview Wednesday night, ABC’s John Berman asked Isaiah Mustafa questions as though this were all something he’d hatched in his spare time. “Explain to me this Old Spice Guy sensation, which you have created,” he asks. Mustafa is an actor and former NFL wide receiver, and, like previous Old Spice pitchman, Bruce Campbell, he is an excellent emblem of hiply embraced manliness. But much of the credit for the success of… whatever all this was might conceivably go to advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy. (Regarding which: ahem.)

The way we are advertised to shows what corporations think of us, and most corporations clearly don’t think too much of their audience. I saw a billboard for Nesquik the other day that showed a bottle of the product and the line: “Stop and Drink the Nesquik.” It had to be pointed out to me that this was a play on the phrase “stop and smell the roses.”

But the Old Spice advertising blitz this week was impeccably orchestrated. It was the first wave of something we’ve never seen before. Since people are opting out of advertising on TV and the Internet and across the media spectrum, it was clear that something was going to have to give. Now, for better or for worse, something has.

Joe Berkowitz is wondering if he smells the way he should.