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Old Spice: Subverting Masculinity?

March 28, 2010

Much has been said about Old Spice’s “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad that aired during the Superbowl this year. If you haven’t seen it yet, here it is:

Hello, ladies. Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back at your man. Now back to me. Sadly, he isn’t me. But if he stopped using lady-scented bodywash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like he’s me. Look down. Back up. Where are you? You’re on a boat with the man your man could smell like. What’s in your hand? Back at me. I have it. It’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love. Look again. The tickets are now diamonds. Anything is possible when your man smells like Old Spice and not a lady. I’m on a horse.

(Personally, he gets me every time with “two tickets to that thing you love”.)

The tagline to this commercial is “Smell Like a Man, Man.” and the commercial refers repeatedly to “smelling like a man” and not “like a lady”. But the overblown, smug delivery and the general absurdity of the commercial seem to wink at the viewer, acknowledging that he or she (This ad seems to be aimed to entertain both men and women, although I believe its ultimate target is in fact men.) understands that it is mocking the over-the-top images of masculinity presented in the ad. This strategy is central to the current Old Spice marketing campaign. A few more commercials:

Lifting weights, being fitted for suits, making meat art for women:

The description for this video: “Don’t smell like sunsets and baby powder. Smell like jet fighters and punching.”:

Bursting through trees, reading in leather chairs, lifting weights, golfing, hanging out with blond ladies:

These commercials seem to subvert ideas about masculinity found in society at large and especially in other commercials (see: Axe; men’s deodorant ads in general) by presenting exaggerations of traditional images of masculinity. For example, the first commercial exaggerates a familiar image of a man carving a turkey by having the resulting slice be a portrait of his companion. In one video on Old Spice’s YouTube page, a golfing scene ends with the golfer biting off the end of his golf club and chewing on it. These commercials also mock traditional images of masculinity by coming out and saying what other commercials just imply: “I’m a man,” these commercials say over and over again; “I smell like a man.”

But as much as this campaign makes me laugh (and is a welcome relief from those creepy “Double Pits to Chesty” Axe ads I keep getting on Hulu), I doubt its actual subversiveness. I think that, more than laughing at traditionally-defined ‘masculinity’ itself, these commercials are laughing at the over-blown expressions of masculinity found in men’s deodorant/bodywash ads. They are satirical. And while satire can be (and often is) subversive, I don’t believe that these commercials subvert traditional masculinity. The ads still promise that Old Spice bodywash and deodorant will make the user “smell like a man” and therefore reap all of the benefits of performing traditionally accepted masculinity (strength, sophistication, luck with the ladies, etc.). Nowhere is the performance of masculinity really questioned. Nor are we presented with alternate images of masculinity. Someone wearing “lady-scented” bodywash or who smells like “sunsets and baby powder” does not smell like a man. And why wouldn’t you want to smell like a man? Men get to lift weights, woo hot chicks, ride a horse, go golfing and be super-suave (among other things these commercials suggest).

The Old Spice ads are entertaining, but I don’t think they cross the line from satirical to subversive. This is a smart advertising strategy that allows them to be funny and unique but still sell bodywash to men in a traditional way (ie: “Wanna be a real man? Buy this product!”). But is this the best we can expect from advertising? Advertisements are, of course, designed to sell products, not to upset the status quo or raise fundamental questions about social norms. Of course we should keep talking about advertisements (and raising our objections to awful ones), but do we need to lower our expectations and accept that advertisements will rarely if ever be subversive?

What do you think? Should we expect more out of advertisements, out of pop culture? What do you think of Old Spice’s ad campaign? Am I way off base with my assessment of its subversiveness? Should we just appreciate that we aren’t being asked if we want “some more“?

PS. This was just going to be a “Quick Hit”, but ended up spiraling into something more, so excuse any rambling or poorly argued points.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2010 3:47 AM

    As horrible a thing as traditional, hegemonic masculinity is, I feel this unmistakable desire to smell like the world’s most successful mountain.

    • Emily permalink
      March 28, 2010 8:52 AM

      Actually, I find the prospect of smelling like jet fighters and punching strangely intriguing.

  2. adam permalink
    March 28, 2010 9:25 AM

    haha, i love that first commercial. it’s hilarious cause they go way overboard, but in the end i feel like they’re just associating old spice with traits a lot of guys ACTUALLY want. in other words muscles. the knee jerk reaction in my mind to a confident looking, muscley guy on TV asking “wanna be me?” is “um, YES!”

    but i don’t think this ad is playing the main role in perpetuating stereotypes like “the ideal guy works out.” what perpetuates stereotypes is when my dad tells me to go work out. to be fair, most of the time he tells me i look great. but on those rare occasions when i get the feeling he wants me to “look better,” it goes a lot deeper than this commercial.

    seeing perfect bodies all over TV can definitely bias your views of what a good body is, maybe even lower your self-esteem. but hearing just the tiniest hint of “you’re not good enough” from someone close to you can change your life.

    so pardon me again for taking this discussion into the deep, but here’s my two cents: i loved this commercial. it’s not personal, it’s hilarious!! but what you’re saying about it connects with deep insecurities i think a lot of guys have about their bodies today, that we’re not buff enough. the commercial is just the salt in a much deeper wound that has been created over a lifetime by people we love and trust. who taught the unwitting offenders? probably their loved ones.

    so if i’m ever blessed with a son of my own, im gonna tell him to run around and use his body and be proud of it without feeling like he has to inflate it with protein and dumbbells. and when he’s tired and needs a rest, imma let him watch some tv– come what may!!

  3. Jessica permalink
    April 27, 2011 11:18 AM

    Actually everything sounds very reasonable, however I would argue that the commerical was meant to enterain men but was advertised toward women. The majority of women do the shopping for their households and men will buy products that they think women will like smelling.

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