Smells Like Viral Advertising: Old Spice Through the Ages

Over the past week, Old Spice -- the 73-year-old aftershave stalwart -- has seized national attention with a viral, interactive ad campaign. Starring former NFL wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa, the commercials revived the smug, buff "Man Your Man Could Smell Like," a character that Mustafa introduced in a popular Super Bowl ad.

What makes this campaign particularly impressive is its level of interaction with customers. Soliciting comments through Twitter, Facebook and other social media, Old Spice then tailored 181 short commercials specifically to viewers. And, while any consumer could request an ad, the final products skewed heavily toward media movers and shakers, including Demi Moore, Ellen DeGeneres and Perez Hilton. Here are a few highlights:

As viewers and the media began taking interest in the personalized ads, Old Spice ad gurus Wieden + Kennedy continued to produce them, further driving demand -- and clicks. By Wednesday, in fact, the campaign had generated over 4 million hits on YouTube.

A few naysayers have argued that Old Spice's campaign could be damaging to the brand by effectively mocking it: Abe Sauer on Brand Channel has suggested that the bargain scent could increase its brand presence by hearkening back to the moody, masculine tone of its 1970's-era ad campaigns.

But Sauer misses the point. Over the past several years, the company has been flirting with various traditional notions of masculinity. For example, its decision to use B-movie icon Bruce Campbell in a Hugh Hefner-inspired tableau singing Duran Duran's Hungry Like the Wolf offered a playful look at the sixties vision of total manliness:

And its 2007 "Manly Test" campaign took the "sweaty man in a locker room" trope to a ridiculous conclusion:

Admittedly, the stereotypes that Old Spice has been skewering are the same ones that it once reinforced. Yet, the ads tended to ignore one of the most important demographics that Old Spice needed to capture: women. An early step toward female buyers, the company's Centaur ad offered a winking poke at a feminine ideal of perfection:

Like Isaiah Mustafa, Centaurs aren't all that exciting for men. But Procter & Gamble -- Old Spice's parent company -- has found that women purchase 70% of the shower gel that is consumed by men in their households, suggesting that an effective ad campaign for male hygiene products needed to appeal to women. At the same time, however, they also had to hold the interest of male consumers.

Enter the Mustafa ads. For female viewers, the former football player offers formidable eye candy; for male viewers, the quick cuts and dry humor of his Super Bowl commercial offered an interesting diversion. This effect was increased in the "Swan Dive" ad, which placed Mustafa in an improbable, meticulously-timed sequence of events, including a log roll, a stroll through a kitchen, and a dizzying jump into a hot tub:

While the recent spate of internet ads don't feature the high production values of the original Mustafa ads, they trade on the surreality and restrained humor of the campaign. What's more, with the hint of personalization and the rough-hewn, indie feel of quickly-edited video, they offer a combination that consumers -- regardless of their gender -- will find hard to resist.