Old Spice’s “Old Spice Man” campaign is troubling for a multitude of reasons. This paper examines the faulty assumptions underlying specifically the “And So it Begins” commercial. As the title suggests, masculinity stereotypes comprise the advertisement’s framework, which intends to make a mockery of stereotypical masculinity but instead further entrenches it. It creates contrast between two celebrity men— Terry Crews and Isaiah Mustafa—but uses Crews as the example of extreme masculinity, thereby implicitly distinguishing Mustafa as a ” normal, masculine man. Mustafa smoothly addresses the audience, alternating between speaking to exclusively men or women, pitching reasons why women celebrate Old Spice and why men should therefore purchase it. Juxtaposed with comical clips of an absurdly hypermasculine Crews shouting, running on water, exhibiting superhuman athleticism, and jumping a motorcycle, everything Mustafa does appears normal, even admirable. Problems inherent in Mustafa’s character and in Crews’ comparison to Mustafa underscore the many faulty assumptions of gender, race, and sexuality used and perpetuated by “And So it Begins.”
Adrienne Rich’s confrontation of “compulsory heterosexuality” in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” relates well to the advertisement’s primary assumption that all viewers are men seeking women. Rich lambasts public perceptions of heterosexuality as the norm, the only option, even. This assumption comprises the central theme of Old Spice’s advertisement campaign. The advertisement opens with a shirtless, muscular, bearded Mustafa saying “Hello, ladies… May I speak privately to the man in your life?” This implies heterosexuality by assuming a man in every woman’s life, and thereby assuming each woman viewing is both heterosexual and monogamous. The same heterosexuality assumptions are made for all men; Mustafa later instructs “Men! Take your body to nature with Old Spice Timber. It’s what the angel-faced woman in your life deserves.” Mustafa commands men to reconnect their bodies with nature by doing what “[their] angel-faced woman” deserves. Not all women desire men; not all men desire women, not all people even experience sexual desire. This false dichotomy is made all the more destructive through Mustafa’s assertion that nature dictates not only ubiquitous heterosexuality, but also universal sexually-motivated beauty standards owed from one gender to the other. Add to this the purposeful mise-en-scene—a handsome, chiseled, muscular Isaiah Mustafa in nothing but a towel—and the heteronormative implications that all women seek real men like Mustafa, and all men should therefore seek to emulate Mustafa in the name of attracting the opposite sex are cemented in plain sight. Heterosexuality is far from the only assumption propagated by Old Spice, though.
“And So it Begins” also relies heavily upon a binary gender structure to galvanize customer support. Constructed by alternating addresses specifically for men or for women, the advertisement is grounded in gender rigidity and mutual exclusivity of men’s and women’s traits, roles, and purposes. Mustafa first greets “ladies,” then dismisses them, asking “may I speak to the man in your life?” Thus, he acknowledges women, then utterly dismisses them so he can tell men: “Take your body to nature with Old Spice Timber. It’s what the angel-faced woman in your life deserves.” Implicitly, he says Old Spice deodorant is for men’s use and women’s gratification only, that this binary arrangement is natural. When addressing men, Mustafa wears a hat and struts confidently through the jungle, wields an axe overhead, or paddles a canoe. He implies mens’ value rests with physical capabilities, and explicitly suggests proper men “sweep [women] away.” When addressing women, however, he hints that their value lies in physical beauty and economic dependence on men, and speaks within bathroom or jewelry store sets (“I didn’t have to—but I did”). Given the viral and commercial success of Old Spice’s “Old Spice Man” campaign, Riki Wilchin’s statement “America had no interest in tearing down traditional gender roles” perhaps should be amended to the present tense.
Viewers are also likely ignorant of the ways through which masculinity and blackness are linked in public perception. Crews and Mustafa are both black, and both considered quite “manly,” catering to every stereotype of assertiveness, confidence, muscularity, facial masculinity, and heterosexuality. However, although Crew’s freakish physique and aggression parody masculinity and manhood, they contrast with Mustafa’s own hyperbolic masculinity in such a way that Mustafa seems normal, worthy of admiration and emulation. In exploring the variability of gender, Three to Infinity: Beyond Two Genders (2015) questions general misconceptions of LGBTQ+ people as being both white and well-off, a theme also challenged by Dr. Anne Balay in Steel Closets. The documentary relates the story of a non-gendered black person (and partner) who was raised a woman despite being gender-nonconforming from an early age. This person recalled being told as a child not to make “her” black mother’s life, or her own, harder—being black carried enough burdens to make external reflection of personal gender truths. Black bodies are hypersexualized—black men, specifically, are often deemed more masculine than whites. In this commercial, both masculine men are black; no black person or man present is not masculine, and no masculine person is anything other than a man or black.
Operating through such fallacious assumptions of ubiquitous heterosexuality, traditional gender dichotomy, and black masculinity, Old Spice’s “And So it Begins” provides a comic sketch to convince viewers to purchase deodorant. Despite openly mocking some of these assumptions, however, Old Spice nevertheless further ingrains them in public imagination.