Why didn't P&G deploy its smart bomb for Old Spice?

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Someone says to you, "Hey, how ya doin'?" You say, "Well, all right, I guess, but both cars are in the shop, so I had to take the bus to work today, and also my damn irritable bowel is acting up, and ...."

And just watch the other person's eyes glaze over. Because, let's face it, he couldn't care less.

Not about your commute, not about your gastroenterology and-OK, let's say you were a Leading National Advertiser-not about your marketing challenges.

Joe Sixpack, lounging in his recliner watching Frasier or Jackass or The World's Most Inflamed Sinuses, or whatever, worries not one whit about your sales or anyone else's. Your first job is to conquer his nearly impregnable fortress of indifference.

So much advertising fails because it imagines the world is hanging on its every word. Other advertising fails because it is so intent on getting noticed it simply grabs viewers by the lapels and shakes, which is attention-getting, but leaves an unfavorable first impression.

What you too seldom see is a TV commercial that gently snags you, keeps you guessing, charms you and makes a cogent point about the advertised product. What you especially too seldom see is such a commercial from the Procter & Gamble Co.

Over the past 15 years, P&G has flirted occasionally with what the ad industry calls "creativity." Campaigns for Cheer, Head & Shoulders, Cascade, Secret and even Charmin have-with varying degrees of success-broken free of the insipid Procter slice-of-life formula. Successes have emboldened management repeatedly to declare its desire for fresh creative solutions. Inertia, bureaucracy, shortsightedness and fear have resulted, repeatedly, in the dreary status quo.

No surprise then that the test-market campaign for Old Spice, from the late Saatchi & Saatchi, San Francisco, has met a premature demise.

A big part of the brief for Old Spice Red Zone antiperspirant was to reduce the age of the average Old Spice user, who is currently in a nursing home. The solutions were ingenious and thoroughly unexpected.

A young guy arrives at a walk-up apartment building, bouquet in hand, for a date. As he is running up the stairs, he passes an old lady, struggling with a small shopping cart.

"Oh, can you please help me, young man?"

He lifts the cart to the landing, and runs to his date's door. But just as he's about to knock....

"I'm stuuuu-uck. I need some help." So he runs down again, lifts the lady and her cart and carries them to her door. Then, huffing and puffing, he once again reaches his destination.... "Hellllp me!"

The tag line: "When will you need it?"

This vignette was unexpected partly because it didn't take the default path for the category: having babes slink toward our hero in pheromonal response to his armpit fragrance (the strategy employed, incidentally, by the Unilever brand reportedly headed for the U.S. market). There was a girl in the story, all right; we just didn't see her. Nor did we have to. The fact that she was upstairs, elusively out of reach, was all we needed to know.

A second spot showed a guy staying dry at a job interview-even though the interview, at a toy manufacturer, consisted of a game of Twister with the boss. Also weird. Also charming. Also funny.

Did this oddball approach appeal to all prospective users? No. Surely the oddity confused large numbers of the irony-impaired. But in test market, the campaign still was gangbusters.

There is, of course, something to be said for the dreary status quo. P&G became a leviathan by hammering product benefits like a pile driver. But the world has changed. In a 200-channel environment, demolishing indifference requires vastly more ordnance, at vastly higher cost per thousand than it did in the halcyon days of the `70s and `80s. That cuts into margins, as P&G only too well knows.

So why waste money trying to crush the fortress if you can penetrate it, more efficiently, with a smart bomb?

The tried-and-true air tactics happen to be working reasonably well at the moment, too. But if they begin to flag, P&G would be wise not to complain. Nobody could care less.

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