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Spice World, or Why The Isaiah Mustafa Old Spice Commericals Are So Damned Funny

2010 July 22

Advertisers for men’s products are finally getting that guys don’t buy masculine ideal — or maybe it’s just that the twentysomethings of Gen-Y can’t understand communication without irony. That’s been my experience anyway.

But it’s still fun to watch all these commercials parodying “manly” behavior (like the Dove ad that encourages men to feel “comfortable” with themselves) and this Gillette ad that makes fun of the Dove ad:

The above ad is doing an impressive balancing act, mocking “manly” activities by means of exaggeration but still insisting on the validity of its own masculine product. Simple exaggeration is an approach that Axe also employed — all those chicks throwing themselves at you is funny but still desirable — throwing in the occasional absurdity (that chocolate guy creeps me out).

The next step in advertising was to make fun not just of the ideal, but of the form itself.  So now commercials are parodying commercials by imitating their stereotypes from an ironic distance. Which is awesome, and fits right in with the current preference for ironic communication.

Old Spice, despite being your dad’s line of product, was at always at the forefront of this kind advertising. It started with those brilliant Bruce Campbell commercials, where he’s playing the ultimate manly man, surrounded by all sorts of “masculine” objects, talking nonsensically about the masculine mystique:

That was followed by that weird commercial where Campbell did a sleazy lounge version of “Hungry Like the Wolf” surrounded by babes.

Now we’ve got the latest line of Old Spice commercials, which take the over-masculine metaphor to its logical limit.

In the first place, Isaiah Mustafa, better known as “that Old Spice” guy, has become his own comic brand — the latest videos have nothing to do with the product and simply a celebrate the betoweled Mustafa proposing on behalf of a fan, reading Tweets, and generally hamming it up.

Mustafa is a great physical comedian, and the humor of  his character is that he’s a straight-up unaware buffoon, like Zapp Brannigan with a little Colbert thrown in — why else does the heading at the top of his Old Spice channel say “I’m on an internet”?  Unlike most buffoons, though, Mustafa’s actually handsome. Which is part of the appeal, obviously.

The commercials rely on the same overkill of manly tropes (horses, power tools, motorcycles) that previous ones did, and throw in quite a bit of visual humor as well (shirts flying on and off, scenery being yanked around).

It’s also interesting that this line of ads is addressed to women even though it’s a male product. I think this ads to the meta- element of the humor; it’s not just men talking to men, it’s a man talking to women on behalf of men, telling them their expectations (diamonds, cakes, tickets to “that thing you love”) are ridiculous. I like this gender equality; both men and women are portrayed as ridiculous in the Old Spice world. And hey, there may even be a little fear-based humor (men being afraid of guys like Mustafa) or general relief that someone is pointing out how ridiculous all these  fantasies are.

In short, the reason these commercials are so successful is the same reason Airplane is so successful: lots of different kinds of humor, going on all at once. By my count (and yes, I did count once), Airplane averaged about 5 jokes per minutes. Given that each of these ads is about 30 seconds, I think Old Spice has doubled that. Wow.

And rhe franchise is big enough to have inspired its own parody/pastiche, this guy shilling the BYU library:

Not bad. Not bad at all.

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