Old Spice's Sailor Seemed to Have a Subliminal Message

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Old Spice 1972 TV commercial
Old Spice 1972 TV commercial  Credit: Old Spice

A sailor comes into port. Really. This iconic, early 1970s TV commercial for Old Spice proves that having a handsome man disembark from a formidable sailing vessel (the real-world answer to the drawing on the product's familiar bottle) is one memorable way to make an entrance.

Once in town, the young salt strides in time to jaunty, nautical music. The dashing sailor, it turns out, is played by actor John Bennett Perry, a Broadway performer and father to then-baby Matthew, the future Chandler Bing on "Friends."

The sailor's on a mission: He's got a duffel full of Old Spice, and as the Johnny Appleseed of after-shaves, he needs to spread it around.

He's on a street in San Francisco when he throws his first bottle up to a bare-chested man standing with his hippie girlfriend at a window. Next, he seems to be in Nebraska, passing a semi-comic farmer/country-cowboy type, who also catches a sample.

What's going on here? For starters, something sublimated. An Old Spice spot from 1957 actually included the line, "The happiest ending a shave ever had." I half expected the seaman would find a Swedish woman and put her in the duffel. But he merely throws a bottle at the camera, seeming to focus on filling one's sails with Daddy Claus appeal.

Old Spice, named after potpourri, was first sold as a men's product in 1938. The Shulton Company sold its line to Procter & Gamble in 1990. By the time of the brilliant 2010 ad campaign riffing on gender and featuring the line "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like," the company had transformed the brand from eau de grandpa to a body wash for the comedy-minded young. "Smell Like a Man, Man," another tag line, gets the self-effacing act of contemporary manliness perfectly—no boat necessary.

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