Old Spice's Love Affair With Itself Serves No Sales Purpose

With Focus on Going Viral, Has It Become Really Unfashionable to Sell Product?

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You're aware by now that Fabio is the summer stand-in for Isaiah Mustafa, and that Old Spice's ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy, is producing content for YouTube and Twitter that plays off the work it did for the "Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign. As of this writing, there's a spokesguy "duel" going on (Mano a Mano in El Bano) involving playful videos that consumers can comment on. It's sure to win some brand-engagement award later this year. Look for it to get referenced as a stroke of genius in pop marketing books, too.

Every CMO needs to see this exercise for the time-waster it is .

I enjoy stupid as much as the next guy, mind you, and one could legitimately argue that there's not a whole lot upon which to base a relationship with a brand that is made up of a few cents' worth of ingredients in a plastic bottle that consumers swipe and splash on mostly out of habit.

Maybe that 's the point? This latest campaign could be a textbook example of why every brand doesn't need a content strategy, and maybe why it isn't so old-fashioned to focus marketing on selling things instead of being entertaining.

There's a longstanding tradition of low-involvement brands running ads devoid of overt sales messages. Billboards for Burma-Shave in the 1930s declared "Does your husband/ Misbehave/ Grunt and grumble/ Rant and rave/ Shoot the brute some/ Burma-Shave." In the 1960s, gas stations used to give away glassware in lieu of trying to differentiate their commodity brands. You could argue that much of the image advertising pioneered in the 1970s onward was heavy on vague symbolism because there were few specific differences worth mentioning (I'm thinking of those dreamy psychedelic human butterfly 7Up spots, for instance).

But those were the days of advertising, when content from companies was pre-qualified as commercial even if the substance of the ads or giveaways didn't declare it. We knew what it was when we saw it, and it spoke to us whether we liked it or not. Its purpose was clear -- to sell us stuff -- because, after all, it was marketing.

The Old Spice campaign is the latest variation on this very old idea, with some important caveats. It isn't classified as commercial, but rather social, so there's no message at the end like "Shoot the brute some Old Spice." It riffs on its own prior creative content, so it's not really about the brand as much as about the brand's branding and giving entertainment to in-the-know viewers. It's an inside joke, really.

So I'm sorry, what's the point again? I understand why the campaign is perfectly suited to social-technology platforms, but TV or print ads were matched to the requirements of those media, too, without giving up their purpose. The argument that social campaigns have no point other than being social is more an excuse than a strategy, since consuming and commenting on content is nothing new (only the clickable tools are). You can add up all the time consumers spend chuckling at the videos and still struggle to make any connection to selling anything, and that 's assuming such linkages are even important to the advertising folks who dream up this stuff.

The original Isaiah Mustafa commercials were utterly brilliant, and combined with in-store promos actually constituted a sales success. They put Old Spice back on the map with some attitudinal relevance, and could have been the prompt for other ads that reinforced and sold the brand again and again. Instead, they're giving consumers more entertaining brand self-love with no point other than celebrating itself. It's "engagement" like a wreck on the side of the road is engagement, ending once it has passed. Nobody needs it except Fabio, though I guess by giving him something to do, the ads could be considered a charitable act.

Cart without horse. Medium without message. Marketing without purpose.

I think I'd be happier if the spots ended with "Shoot the brute some Old Spice." Is it really so unfashionable for brands to ask for the sale?

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at dimbulb.net and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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