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Old Spice Still Smells like Old Advertising

Submitted by on July 25, 2010 – 12:44 am8 Comments

I have been watching the Old Spice phenomenon with interest and admiration so don’t get me wrong; it will set the bar for great, creative work in advertising but is it a high point for social media?  I don’t think so.

The campaign, with its barrage of rapid-response YouTube videos distributed through Twitter, is modern advertising done extremely well; it acknowledges (and capitalizes on the fact) that we live in a world suffused with social tools, but it isn’t exemplary of them or the fullest expression of their potential.   It is still essentially a high-polish, broadcast campaign (technically one might better call it “transmedia“).  In fact, I would contend that this is exactly why the campaign has been so successful in bridging the gap from its origins as a television commercial.  They maintained the formula of high production standards that marked the original.   They kept the responses exclusive, selectively engaging people that would keep them “on brand” while maintaining a steady stream of high-quality content.

At the end of the day, the breathless analysis of Old Spice as the zenith of social media leaves one to wonder what the commentariat think social media is, and whom it is actually for.

I once read that in the 1960’s comics and counterculture figures began using profanity in part because they felt that the use of such language precluded their message/movement from being co-opted.   They were, of course, temporarily right and permanently wrong.  It took a bit longer but nearly every song of that age has found its way into an advertisement.  Its slogans have been re-engineered to suit – and peace, harmony (“I’d like to give the world a Coke”) and even songs critiquing material pursuits (Janis Joplin for Mercedes-Benz ) have been stripped of their original intent and attached to one product or other.

So it goes with the social media land grab currently underway as every major corporation rushes to stake a claim on our attention and our loyalty.   They are co-opting a medium whose fundamental and radical proposition is a promotion of interpersonal connection, many-to-many communication, and the privilege of social norms over business norms.

Further, the discourse that informs the way we define social media in practice is being shaped by an army of consultants whose personal stake in this game is deeply tied to the clients that they serve.  More often these are big corporations.  Thus the analysis of BP all too often focused on how BP could help itself during the crisis rather than how society at large might better use these tools to come to grips with corporate malfeasance.   The conversations about Nestle’s “failure” focused on prescriptions that supported the consultant’s value proposition more than the real-world context that surrounded the Nestle incident.   On a much more benign level the analysis of Old Spice would lead you to believe that it is the pinnacle of social media– when in my opinion it rises just above a clever extension of a broadcast message.

The transformative nature of social media lies in the fact that it enables a more equitable distribution of power, ingenuity and creativity.    The sea change that comes from realizing this potential is not about technology or marketing.  It certainly (from my point of view) isn’t about how corporations can profit or dominate.  It is all about how a major shift in our own sense of identity (we are all now authors and authorities), social norms and a new mode of production might give us a better world.   It’s greatest exemplars then are drawn from the grass roots, the marginalized, the entrepreneurial, the unintended and even the seemingly trivial.

Yes, let’s celebrate some interesting corporate case studies.  But let’s keep our eyes on the bigger prize and promise of social media.  Doing so is part of making sure that promise is realized.

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  • @jmichele reminds us of the promise of the internet – “enables a more equitable distribution of power, ingenuity and creativity” with this post. We are in the same camp, as discussed in this post “What's the Point?” http://www.comradity.com/comradity/2010/06/what

    As fun as the Old Spice campaign is, here's to continuing to aim beyond it . . .

    Katherine Warman Kern

  • joshuamross says:

    Thanks for the comment and link to your post Katherine. Another interesting post in a similar vein just came on my radar. From Doc Searls: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/doc/2010/07/19/r-b

  • That's one of many valuable posts from @DocSearls who is the thought leader in a critical characteristic (and tech integration) of future media designed to benefit customers and consequently brands – Vendor Relationship Management. http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/vrm/


  • journik says:


    While I agree that the W+K Old Spice Campaign fits in the “transmedia” box… I think the real problem was the messaging. If you only look at the way W+K used the medium you'll totally overlook the fact that they did a poor job of creating the brand message.

    To this day, if I say shoe, I think Nike. If you say body wash, I DONT think Old Spice.

    But there are even bigger reasons why the Old Spice ads failed… here they are: http://journik.posterous.com/viral-old-spice-co

  • joshuamross says:

    Thanks for the comment and the link. Your point on messaging is well taken. However, I am not concerned with success or failure to sell units of body wash but the fact that corporations and the consultant class see this on/off campaign as some sort of pinnacle of social media – when, in fact, it is another large, wealthy entity essentially broadcasting high production content. Granted, very entertaining and well executed content and leveraging social platforms… But moving units of body wash for P&G is not what is radical or transformative about social media.

  • Ben Caspersz says:

    The Old Spice campaign may not be the pinnacle of 'pure' social media, but it is right up there with the best when it comes to digital PR campaigns.

    This is a cracking campaign that's got people excited about a brand that up until this campaign was pretty much dead in the water.

    And before we start to bemoan the lack of user generated content and consumer participation etc etc, remember: this campaign is not over yet. Let's see what they come up with next before casting any final judgements…

  • joshuamross says:

    Ben – thanks for the comment but I think you misinterpret this post.

    As I state right up front – I am not criticizing the campaign itself – it is epic. I am stating the that commentariat, whose interests align with the corporations they serve, are acting as though this is the best that social media has to offer.

    If you believe that selling units of deodorant (or any other CPG) is the fulfillment of that promise – then great. I do not. I am not “bemoaning the lack of user generated content” to help sell same deodorant or “consumer participation” – as you put it – (an oxymoron don't you think?). Even if the next phase of this campaign is to solicit user generated content etc. I wouldn't be moved to change my appraisal.

    In brief, I don't think social media fulfills its promise by helping sell products or serving large corporations (though neither do I exclude them from the right to use SM). If you take that view – then you look for other exemplars beyond corporations (from Wikipedia to Ushahidi to Lolcats (yes, I mean it) and beyond). That is the point I was trying to make.

    I hope you would agree that to argue from this vantage point is to take nothing away from the genius of Wieden and Kennedy or Proctor and Gamble.

  • Ben Caspersz says:

    Thanks for the reply, Joshua-Michéle – I take your point about the particular vantage point you've written this piece from.

    My point of view is that social media excellence – exemplar status – is not limited just to the worthies out there (including many of my own not-for-profit clients). As a practitioner, I'm not bothered whether they're doing it as part of a social cause or just to flog deodorant. Social media excellence is social media excellence, no matter where it's come from.

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