Old Spice's viral success: Take that, Super Bowl

Why the company's online campaign beats the pants off those pricey, manly prime-time spots

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 22, 2010 9:23PM (EST)

This year, agencies spent a bazillion dollars in production costs and advertising time at the Super Bowl to shill their wares in star-studded, big-budget spectacles. So in the ensuing weeks, what's been the big winner, the one ad everybody's talking about? A clever new Old Spice spot -- one that skipped the game altogether and debuted online.

Watch, future Don Drapers, watch and learn: The born-to-be-viral "I'm on a horse" ad has everything an effective bit of marketing should deliver. In it, the incredibly easy-on-the-eyes Isaiah Mustafa stands in a shower and informs ladies he's "the man your man could smell like." He's then suddenly on a boat, holding "two tickets to that thing you love" that transform into diamonds. Finally, for the punch line, he's magically astride a beautiful horse. It's like a James Bond movie crossed with a Harlequin romance.

The ad is also funny (thanks in large part to Mustafa), it's quotable ("I'm on a horse") and it begs for repeat viewings, thanks to its "how the hell did they did do that?" factor. And there's something especially cool -- and astonishing -- in the revelation that Portland's innovative Wieden + Kennedy agency did it the old-fashioned way. The spot, which took three days to get right, was done in one take and with minimal special effects. 

But the real pleasure in the ad -- one that eludes so many of the he-man, girl-hating spots out there -- is that it manages to poke fun at all things "lady-scented" while cleverly appealing to ladies themselves. The man your man could smell like doesn't live in a world where he needs to take a "last stand" or "wear the pants." Yes, he may understand that "a woman should smell like butterflies and salt taffy, and a man should smell like jet fighters and punching." He may even suds himself in a body wash called "Swagger,"  but he's poking fun at those sex role conventions even as he douses his manly self in them. He's not cranky or pouty, and he certainly hasn't had his spine removed. He's too cool for all that.

Closing in on 3 million YouTube views, the Old Spice ad proves you don't have to spend a few million dollars for 15 seconds at a football game to get people to watch your message -- and you don't need to put down an entire sex to get people talking about it either. You just need to be debonair, smart and, most significantly, make us laugh.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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