Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Old Spice Still Gets It

It used to be so simple. A manly sailor would walk into port with his duffel bag thrown rakishly over his shoulder. A sweet, sexy lass in sexy-lass clothing would await his arrival on the dock and off they’d go. But this particular sailor (played by Matthew Perry’s dad, by the way) was not only a little rough around the edges, but also generous with his lady-killing secrets; before leaving his love, he’d throw a bottle of Old Spice as a sort of bone over to the creepy loner dude watching and wondering how it’s done. Jaunty nautical music up, over and out.

Fast-forward to today, when romantic scenarios tend to get as complicated as choosing a “manfume” in a sea of fancy designer fragrances. It’s no wonder, then, that much of the cooler mass advertising aimed at men 18-24 just gives up and makes fun of such simplistic 1960-’70s-era macho setups like the sailor coming to port.

So what’s a venerable brand like Old Spice to do? (One target that seems natural, middle-age and older women who love the smell because their daddies wore it, would probably be too creeped out to admit that and buy some.) Last week on the Tonight Show, Jay Leno joked, “Old Spice—isn’t that who David Beckham is married to?” In this age of forced newness, what could be worse than being saddled with the “o” word right in the brand name?

Surely, most marketing consultants would suggest modernizing the brand by changing the name to O.S., or maybe just S. And Procter & Gamble has actually already gone that route for a pricier version in a fancier, square glass bottle, which you can find on the Old Spice Web site. With all of the company’s superior soap technology, they’ve also had success with the various Red Zone and High Endurance deodorants and body washes—playing down the Old Spice part of a very busy, modernized label.

But that still leaves the question of what to do with gramps—the original, iconic mass-aftershave lotion itself. That’s why this first campaign for the Spice from Wieden + Kennedy seems counter-intuitive. In some sense, they’re saying forget the faux hipness of trying to be Axe. We’re here, we’re old and we’re proud—get used to it. Except in its carefully cultivated strategic smarts, the idea of “old” has been replaced with the much more positive concept of “experience.” And, essentially, the idea of “experience” has been replaced with the slightly creepier idea of, well, “doing it”—but more on that later.

In “Painted Experience,” Old Spice’s big, new brand manifesto airing in 60- and 30-second versions, the idea of the sailor (or, at least, the sea) is back, as is the whistle, but this time with some knotty (and kind of nutty) new baggage. Instead of a dock, we find ourselves inside the refined mahogany walls of a yacht club. The lowly seaman has been replaced by a yachtsman in a snappy, double-breasted blue blazer and khaki pants. No sailor he, the new Old Spice man is actually the actor Bruce Campbell, who through his work in sci-fi and horror movies (e.g., Evil Dead) and offbeat TV roles (he played the part of a polygamous demon in an X-Files episode) has already attracted a maniacal cult following who have posted the spot all over YouTube.

Campbell, whose autobiography is titled, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, acts as a younger Peter Graves here, projecting the mellifluous voice of authority (with some built-in sarcasm).

The spot is a little hard to understand, or love, at first, because it’s so damn smart. It’s built on being circular, from Campbell’s clever, repetitive and therefore necessarily annoying monologue—”If you have it, you don’t need it. If you need it, you don’t have it…”—to the hilarious device of a painting of an old clipper ship, by the talented artist Wayne White, that just keeps going, repeating itself for what seems like miles as Campbell starts out in one living room and ends up in another identical space.

The campaign includes a microsite that puts users through its “Experitron 800” test, which covers all areas of possible male experience from geography and wine to power tools. While it’s fun (and makes fun of “sissy men” and “manfume”), it doesn’t seem as fresh and original as the spot.

Still, the commercial, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband/wife team behind the amazing Little Miss Sunshine, isn’t all high-falutin’—there are plenty of dumb phallic symbols, like the big ship and a fire in the fireplace that suddenly pops up. (There seems to be a fart joke at the end as well, but I don’t want to go there.)

And now, back to what “it” is. “Wanting it, needing it, wishing for it,” Campbell says, “the point is that if you’ve never had any of it, people seem to know.” Then a super appears with “Experience is everything. Old Spice.” So by going from “old” to “experienced” to “sex” and then cutting out that middle word, they’ve actually figured out a way to change “old” to “sex.” Now that’s spicy.