Old Spice is known for their shirtless models with chiseled torsos, commercials that Inc.com calls “Funny. Memorable. Manly,” “a marketing success”. It’s difficult to find someone who hasn’t seen or experienced the sheer silliness of an Old Spice commercial—upon seeing my first one I remember rocking back and forth in laughter before training my eyes on the next commercial, unthinkingly moving past the fairly overt problematic assumptions presented by Old Spice. Their commercial, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” is a minefield of gender and sexuality based assumptions, affecting not only societal constructions of what it is to be male, but also what it is to be female.
Before diving in to the actual verbiage of the piece, the setting as well as the costume screams sexualization. A young, athletically built man stands in front of an open shower curtain (water running behind), naked but for a towel around the waist, waggling his eyebrows as a booming voice challenges other men on their “manliness”. Right off the bat, we can see the classic image that the Old Spice Company itself terms “a manly man”. Throughout the course of the thirty-second commercial, the towel flies off the man to reveal tight fitting white pants, and a shirt is tied around his topless torso as the setting changes to a boat, then a beach on top of a horse. The evolution in just thirty seconds of commercial whips us from a sexualized scene in a bathroom to a whimsical boat scene, to a moment on a horse, playing into historical images of men riding majestically into battle to defend loved ones and honor. Interestingly enough, the idea of a ‘manly man’ is illustrated brilliantly in the ad, playing upon all stereotypes except for that of the ‘ideal man’ involving a measure of whiteness, as the man of the commercial is a person of color. While it seems as though Old Spice is defying racial expectations, sexuality and gender norms are stringently enforced and thrust upon the viewer.
The initial shower scene alone is played with the goal of capturing heterosexual women’s attention through sexualized images while simultaneously playing to ideals of masculinity and competition through men. Inc.com’s assessment of this commercial as a “marketing success” may not be far off the mark, as the first five seconds alone seem to have the tools necessary to capture the attention of both heterosexual women and men, drawing the attention of their target audience in a flash. If it weren’t enough to capture the attention of the heterosexual woman through the setting and costuming itself, the opening two words of the commercial are “Hello ladies”.
As the narrator/character begins to speak, he speaks to the heterosexual woman looking for not only a heterosexual man, but a typically masculine one as well. He then says “look at your man, now back to me. Now back to your man, now back to me.” Not only is it implied that the target audience is heterosexual women, but he actually calls for women to “look to their man”. After saying that it’s unfortunate their man doesn’t look like him, he says, “but if he stopped using lady-scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like me”. Sharply contrasting his masculinity with the idea of femininity and “lady scented body wash” (implicitly floral or sweet-smelling body wash), he offers a ‘masculinity challenge’ of sorts, to heterosexual men, asserting that scent plays a key factor in their perceived masculinity. The simultaneous play to the assumed desires of the heterosexual woman and the ego bruise to the heterosexual men are a means of ensuring that women go out and buy the soap for their significant others, and that if they don’t, men will buy it themselves to further establish their masculinity. This association between scent and masculinity is reminiscent of other associations used by media advertising—for example, consumption of alcohol and having a good time with friends: having fun. These associations normally made during advertisements are proven effective, however, when combined with societal constructions of what it is to be a man or a woman, we see that the product marketing takes deeper root.
Continuing with the plot of the commercial, the silliness explodes as the man in the commercial makes quick shifts between tickets to “that thing you like”, which then turn into diamonds, which then lead to the phrase “anything is possible when your man smells like Old Spice and not a lady”. After playing into the stereotype of women liking jewelry and the arts, this final charged line further helps to showcase the polarization between genders, placing women on one side and men on the other, femininity on one end and masculinity on the other, going against the idea of a spectrum.
This, interestingly enough, plays into an idea raised by Risman in her work “Gender as Structure”, in which she introduces the idea of different levels of gender as structure: individual, interactional, and institutional. I would argue that commercials such as this, presented by Old Spice, function on the interactional level, involving “cultural expectations: taken-for-granted situational meaning” (129). Regardless of our personal expectations, the commercial hands us a situation in which the gender binary is assumed, in addition to heterosexuality. The multitude of layers of assumptions presented by Old Spice serve to reinforce societal expectations of gender roles, as well as cater specifically to heterosexual viewers, overtly calling them and only them to attention.
Risman, Barbara. “Gender as structure.” Gender Vertigo: American Families in Transition (1998): 127-132.