The Story of the Super Bowl Commercial That Never Was

Old Spice's iconic 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like' ad almost never aired at all

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It was mid-December 2009. Procter & Gamble had an extra 30 seconds of ad time in Super Bowl 44 and a giant warehouse full of Old Spice body wash that was collecting dust. If I remember correctly, the plan was to sell the lot with the help of a Big Game spot, and then retire the Old Spice brand from the body wash business.

As copywriters at Wieden+Kennedy Portland at the time, my creative partner Craig Allen and I only had a couple days to come up with a script. The Old Spice playbook had been clearly established: Use a handsome spokesman speaking directly to the camera. A strategist came to our office and told us that, unlike deodorant, body wash was purchased by women, so we should be speaking to them. Craig turned to his computer and started typing. “Hello, ladies …”

We showed our creative directors a handful of scripts. “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” was the clear winner, but it needed a punch line. One of our other scripts featured a spokesman calling out all the different locations he was in throughout the commercial. It ended with him saying, “I’m on a horse.” The line made everyone laugh, so we slapped it on the end.

We sent the script to Tom Kuntz, a director Craig and I had been working with for three or four years on brands like Skittles, CareerBuilder and Old Spice. Given that we shot the ad right before and after Christmas, production was a whirlwind. Hollywood was definitely on vacation—a casting call for a handsome, fit spokesman would usually bring in endless options, but not this time.

At callbacks, we were working with an actor who definitely wasn’t fit and handsome, but his humorous machismo had us smiling and we were desperate. Usually, a callback lasts five minutes; we were working with this guy for what felt like half an hour. Just outside the door sat Isaiah Mustafa, who was thinking that since the guy had been in the room for so long, he definitely had the job. So Isaiah decided to take a risk.

On the way to the audition, Isaiah had an idea for a comic book hero-type voice. He didn’t do it in his first audition, and in callbacks the rule is to do what got you there. But, at this point, he figured he had nothing to lose. His first performance in his callback is exactly what he did in the spot. I remember feeling incredibly relieved.

In one take, there was a lot that had to be perfectly timed: a shower turning off, a bathroom set being raised into the air, a shirt dropping perfectly onto Isaiah’s shoulders, a towel ripped from his waist, trading the body wash for the oyster, opening the oyster to reveal two tickets, Isaiah sitting down and scooting onto the horse.

We had two days to shoot, and halfway through the second day, the whole thing hadn’t come together yet. Then, the heavens opened.

When you’re shooting outside, you can get weather insurance for rainy days. In order for a day to be covered, however, it has to start raining before a certain time in the afternoon, usually at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. And sure enough, 15 minutes before that cutoff on our second day, a small storm rolled in. I remember watching producers take out their phones and start recording the sky. It saved us.

On the third day, we got it. I believe it took 67 takes in all, with the decision coming down to an obvious two takes done in the final hour of shooting. But we had done it; we finished the spot and sent it to the clients for approval.

They hated it. So much, in fact, that they didn’t want it to run, let alone during the biggest sporting event of the year.

Some phone calls between high-level folks at P&G and W+K took place. The decision was made to pull it from the Super Bowl and use it to run down the rest of the media buy, starting right after the game.

The rest, you know. “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” became such a hit so quickly that it actually won some Super Bowl commercial polls. Sales exploded. Isaiah went on Oprah. No one could have dreamed of that kind of success.

How did we do it? In my opinion, Craig has the best explanation: “No one had time to screw it up.”

For all the latest Super Bowl advertising news—who’s in, who’s out, teasers, full ads and more—check out Adweek’s Super Bowl 2022 Ad Tracker and the rest of our stories about the Big Game. And join us on the evening of Feb. 13 for the best in-game coverage of the commercials anywhere.

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This story first appeared in the Feb. 7, 2022, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.