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Ads that made history: that time Old Spice broke the fourth wall

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I was still in high school when a friend of mine showed me a distinctive ad, featuring a man as he talked directly at the camera. I had never seen an ad like that before – and certainly not in my overly traditional home country.

To think that over 10 years have passed since this iconic Old Spice spot is somewhat crazy, but the fact we still remember it is a testament to the impact Wieden + Kennedy were able to make at the time. It may not be like a Rolls-Royce ad or a woman launching a sledgehammer against the Big Brother, but it still had huge impact – and just like all the other ads in this series, it did so because it dared.

Taking risks is a virtue in this industry and we can hardly say that the vast majority of agencies is doing that enough. That is a very convoluted way of saying that before the pandemic, things were looking as standard as ever, with a few sprinkles of originality and genius here and there. Of course it’s easy to understand why businesses would be playing safe – but if you do, don’t expect to make any list of historical ads in the near or far future.

Surely the Covid-19 crisis has stirred things up a bit, with more and more campaigns daring to be human and unique. While we can’t be sure about how long that is going to last, what we can hope is that we could see more ads like the Old Spice one right below.

The Man Your Man Could Smell Like

It’s interesting to see how much perception has changed since 2010. Today, in all his splendour and charisma, some may not fully appreciate the humour of actor Isaiah Mustafa as he speaks to the camera. And yet, the agency's targeting was all based on real insight.

Back in 2010, Wieden + Kennedy found out that 60% of body wash purchases were made by women. The agency decided to turn around that insight by provoking a conversation between couples, and thus, The Man Your Man Could Smell Like was born.

This is just the name of the initial 30-second ad, which is the most famous out of the entire campaign. The campaign itself was named Smell Like A Man, Man, and it featured Mustafa (“the Old Spice Man”) as he progressed through a series of activities, locations, costumes and surreal situations, all in one uninterrupted take.

The Old Spice Man is seen as he addresses the camera confidently and in rapid-fire monologues, promoting the benefits of Old Spice products. Mostly, these benefits focus on possessing or giving a manly scent through Old Spice body wash, as opposed to “lady-scented body wash” for men.

The whole campaign features a whole range of ads and follow-up commercials, but it was the first one that truly set its name into stone as one of the most successful and groundbreaking campaigns of the past decade. With nothing but a towel wrapped around his loins, Mustafa is seen as he moves from a bathroom to a boat, then on a horse, all in one uninterrupted take. The claim is that “anything is possible” when using Old Spice body wash, and the way the entire commercial was shot makes for some unforgettable moments of humour.

Launch and Reception

The first spot aired online during the Super Bowl weekend and it was broadcast on television shortly after. It had an overwhelming success. Wieden + Kennedy focused on a media buy targeting environments where couples would be watching the ad together, and extensive coverage by the media made it so that the ad quickly became a huge phenomenon in the industry.

The Man Your Man Could Smell Like has collected over 60 million views on YouTube as of October 2021, and as more and more people go back to reference the ad or have a good laugh, that number is certain to go up more and more in the following years. Of course the ad won a number of accolades and awards all over the world, and it entered popular culture in a number of ways – including a series of parodies from Sesame Street and How It Should Have Ended.

Wieden + Kennedy was hoping to increase Old Spice body wash sales by 15%; by May 2010, just a few months after the release of the campaign, sales had increased by 60% from the previous year, and by July 2010, they had doubled. The ad was so successful that the agency followed it up with the “Response” campaign, taking select questions from social media and filming responses with Mustafa. Among these there was a request to film a marriage proposal, which is easily one of the funniest things ever seen online.

Legacy

Building on the success of the campaign, a series of other ads were released later on to continue the Old Spice Man series. The biggest effort however was made with a whole new campaign in 2015, featuring Terry Crewsalongside Mustafa himself.

The new campaign was named Make a Smellmitment and it greatly echoed the format of the previous series of ads; long single shots, character monologues, random events and a lot of humour. This time, while Isaiah Mustafa was employed in ads which would target mostly women, Terry Crews reprised his Old Spice character targeting the male audience, as he screams and break things on camera. It's so crazy and off-the-wall it turns inside-out and becomes genius.

This campaign was too hugely successful for Old Spice, though the old formula had already been proven and, apart from pumping up the humour, there was little to innovate in this case. The original campaign, daring to break the fourth wall, daring to address the customer directly with confidence and humour, made history as one of the most groundbreaking campaigns of all time, and rightfully so.

I doubt that, when Craig Allen and Eric Kallman at Wieden + Kennedy were writing the original campaign, they had any idea of how successful it would become. Certainly they knew they were working on something unique; but historical? I don’t believe so.

Like in many other cases in the history of advertising (and entertainment in general), history is often made by accident. Sometimes you don’t even know that you have something excellent in your hands; you just hope it is. Yet, by choosing to take a risk and push forward with your ideas, despite what anyone else may say, you are making a unique impact in your own personal story, and the one of your agency.

This is possibly one of the most wholesome implications of an ad like Old Spice’s; the lives it changed, on the agency side and the consumer side alike (or so one hopes), with a simple little bottle of body wash.

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