Ever wonder what people in Ireland do for kicks? Well, if you want to see for yourself, Aer Lingus runs 12 direct flights daily out of North America. Or you could just save money and time by watching the latest videos for Irish Spring.
The enduring green-and-white deodorant soap, which hit store shelves 44 years ago, is undergoing a brand revival. Not only is there a new Signature for Men Body Wash that's clearly aimed at younger buyers, but the brand also created a bunch of video shorts, all of which show purported snapshots of rural Irish life.
They include a trip to the Dublin Fish Market, where a fisherman named Sean uses Irish Spring so he can "go from catchin' bass to chasin' lass."
There's also Shane, who throws boulders during the Celtic Warrior Games. Shane "keeps his girl Molly" by showering with Irish Spring before meeting her at the pub.
Then there's poor Liam, who cheers so hard at the Gaelic football match, he spills his beer on his head—and "that's a perfectly good waste of a drink," quips the narrator in a heavy brogue.
Viewers over 40 might get the feeling they've seen this sort of thing before—probably because they have. The new videos (created by agency Red Fuse) are certainly a callback to the Irish Spring spots that ran endlessly in the early 1980s—unforgettable to this day for their feigned accents, burly boggers, freckled lasses and other cringe-worthy stereotypes.
"It feels like an amateur ad," says Rex Whisman, founder and chief strategist of the BrandED Consultants Group, referring to the Celtic Warrior spot. "It doesn't feel like Irish Spring has evolved. It feels stuck—even backward. They've missed an opportunity to say that, in the last 30 years, the world has changed."
Changed, he means, to the point where ethnic, gender and national stereotyping aren't really such great marketing ideas anymore.
Irish Spring is a brand in the portfolio of Colgate-Palmolive, a CPG colossus that grossed $16 billion last year. It can afford whatever cutting-edge marketing it wants. So why is the soap brand still up to these Celtic shenanigans?
That's a tough one to answer. Neither Irish Spring's parent company nor agency Red Fuse responded to Adweek's requests to discuss the brand's revived marketing. And independent marketers like Whisman are puzzled. If you're going to rejuvenate your band, he says, "I wouldn't start by going down a path to the past."
The past he's referring to began in the late 1970s, when Y&R began producing 30-second spots for Irish Spring—a soap characterized by its "Ulster Fragrance" and marbled, white-and-green appearance.
Though the tags were catchy ("Fresh and Clean as a Whistle!") the spots ladled the soap's "Irishness" on pretty thick. That might have been intended to overcompensate for the fact Irish Spring actually originated in Germany—Iriche Frühling—and had nothing to do with Ireland at all.
Y&R's commercials featured bruising men in Aran sweaters and Donnegal caps. To a backing track of flute music, they ran, wrestled and rode horses on rolling green fields—all while their meek and pretty women gazed at them adoringly.
Everybody addressed one another in an accent so thick you could cut it with a knife—that is, if the knife weren't already being used to cut open a bar of Irish Spring so the narrator could explain the wonder of having "two deodorants" in the same soap.
"I remember those original commercials back in the 1980s," says advertising and marketing executive Petur Workman, whose practice area includes branded video content.
Back then, he says, feigned Irish accents and fawning women didn't raise eyebrows. But today? Even though Shane's girlfriend is an assertive woman, she's nevertheless "his girl" Molly, complete with red hair and the accent. "It's not PC anymore," Workman said, "and I found [the new effort] offensive. Even if it's targeted at the Irish community, it's a slap in the face—who in the hell talks like that? They're also cutting their noses to spite their face, because a lot of women use this product."
The (Real) Irish Perspective
Maria McGarrity, a professor of Irish literature and culture at New York's Long Island University, surveyed the new videos and concluded that they "display the typical, essentialist view of Irish culture, its fiery lasses, drunken revelry and faux accents that might as well offer a 'top of the morning to ya' as an overture. The only thing I think is missing is a paddy wagon."
If a brand is going to tap into Irish culture, McGarrity suggests, it should do it for real. "Instead of the staged, Irish Aran-sweater sporting, ginger haired [actors], why not use actual scenes of Ireland, its sports, people and fun?" she asks. "There is plenty of excellent material in the country without resorting to its worst evocations."
Whisman agrees. "The ethnic element is risky, and the gender piece is risky," he said. "I'd suggest that they look at women in a leadership role, and not make it feel like it does here. It could be considered sexist." Instead of Shane starring in the ad, Whisman suggests, why can't a woman do it? "Or you could have the men and women going up against each other in rugby or something–some element of progressiveness."
But could it be that these perceived slights are actually the point? Americus Reed, a brand identity consultant and professor of marketing at Wharton, points out that creating controversial content is a proven way of making consumers curious about a brand.
"We find in the research that when you use a little bit of WTF, this delayed effect takes over. You forget the odd or annoying part and you're left with the brand message and a higher awareness of the brand." It's tempting, he says, looking at these tired Irish tropes, "to think, 'you guys are out of ideas.' But actually, it's quite nostalgic."
Besides, he notes, younger viewers will have no institutional memory of the old spots anyway. And judging from the comments posted to the brand's Facebook page (the comments we can see, at any rate), it seems like some consumers took the spots as a joke. "Haha! I haven't seen an Irish Spring commercial in years!" wrote one. "The new ads are so fun. Good on ya, boy!" offered another. Said a third: "These are genuinely funny! Go get 'em, Colin!"