By now you’ve probably at least heard about Old Spice’s uber-viral Old Spice Guy ad campaign. It’s so simple and successful that Gillette is probably rubbing a Mach3 on its wrists as I type this: A well-built, often shirtless black man (Isaiah Mustafa) demonstrates his virility to women with a series of romantic, sometimes magical undertakings—baking a cake, turning event tickets into diamonds, horseback riding, etc. Old Spice Guy’s ultimate point is that while “your man” can’t be as handsome, strong, or mysterious as he is, he can at least smell as masculine if he uses Old Spice body wash. Though they initially address women, the commercials always end with the tagline “Smell like a man, man.”
Problems with heteronormativity and misogyny—all women love diamonds!—aside, the Old Spice Guy spots are funny in the offbeat and visually exciting manner Internet audiences demand. PC World is calling the commercials “the most brilliant ad campaign ever.” They’ve become so popular with Twitter and Facebook users that there’s now a YouTube channel on which Old Spice Guy speaks directly to his Internet fans in 15 to 30-second bursts. It was there that Old Spice Guy granted a Twitter fan’s request to perform his marriage proposal for him.
Most of us should be able to agree that nuptials beginning through a corporate Internet meme have a difficult road ahead; the success of the Old Spice Guy, on the other hand, might actually be a sign that being a black man in America is getting slightly easier.
It wasn’t so long ago that black men in advertising were used to fill one of two roles: violent savage or passive, simple-minded gofers. Take for instance this Van Heusen shirt ad from 1952—less than a decade before Barack Obama was born—in which a scary black man adorned in bones is juxtaposed with a group of well-groomed whites. On this billboard, a black bellhop points excitedly at a white family’s new Plymouth, certainly agog at the mechanical finery he couldn’t dream of affording. Mad Men’s Don Draper may be quite handsome, but advertising in the early 20th century was frequently hideous, exploiting the meanest of stereotypes in order to sell garbage people didn’t actually need.
Today’s ad agencies continue to push useless crap, of course, but to their credit, they’re usually far less racist in their salesmanship. To wit, Old Spice Guy. There was a time when a muscular black man addressing America’s “ladies”—not just black ladies, but all ladies—in a sexualized tone could have gotten him killed. The black male’s inherent maleness wasn’t an attractive quality; it was brutish and animalistic, something to be feared and pointed at as if looking at a zoo.