I’ll be the first guy to admit that I have no expertise in figuring out what real world things Old Spice is meant to smell like. A bout of Googling turns up some possibilities, like citrus, cinnamon and, carnation, but I can’t verify that. This is probably why I never went into perfumery. All I know is that I’ve got childhood memories of being jealous every time I had to buy my older cousins Old Spice gift packs with glass steins in them, and that my ex-boyfriend uses their deodorant.
For the last couple of years, Old Spice ad campaigns have been nailing the cultural zeitgeist. They hired ‘s Tim and Eric to do a reality-bending series of commercials for their Odor Blocker body wash line, all of which basically amount to former NFL player Terry Crews screaming and flexing his pecs until something explodes. For a while they had Will Farrell as Jackie Moon from Semi-Pro, and Bruce Campbell as…well, Bruce Campbell. Neil Patrick Harris did a spot that touted his credentials as a man who used to play a doctor “for pretend” in order to hock antiperspirant. According to the tee vee, L.L. Cool J and Tony Stewart were dweebs before Old Spice.
And then, amidst admonitions to “Smell like a man, man!” and commercials about “different scents for different gents” that involved crashing through walls and Scooby-Doo masks, the jewel in the Old Spice advertising crown appeared like a lotus rising out of dark water.
I’m talking about Isaiah Mustafa, aka The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.
Look at…well, anyone really. Now look at Isaiah Mustafa. Look back at whoever you looked at just now. Now back to Isaiah Mustafa.
It’s okay. I’ll wait. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that the man is easy on the eyes.
He also delivers a killer deadpan while executing some of the most bizarre single-take antics in recent commercial history. He’s in a shower. On a boat. No wait, he’s astride a white horse on the beach, sitting in an English saddle with a hand full of diamonds. It’s the most comprehensive satire of romantic cliché I’ve seen in ages, with a nudge and a wink to the usual dullness of real life.
I mean, presumably, almost none of us look over at the other arm of the sofa midway through reruns and see a shirtless Isaiah Mustafa who can leap off a cliff into a hot tub with a motorcycle in it. Still, it’s rather charming and funny to think about the schmucks we’re actually dating doing just that, and how they could be improved by smelling like this impossibly talented and handsome superman. It’s fun to joke and tease and pretend. It’s fun to buy a little bit of magic.
This month, Old Spice took it a step further when Mustafa did a series of in-character YouTube responses to celebs and everyday people alike (including, amusingly enough, one to himself and one to his daughter). These of course, made the rounds online nearly as quickly as they went up. Even setting Mustafa’s glorious abs and low-slung towel aside, the reportedly ad-libbed reply fest was a thing of beauty.
Look at your life. Now look at these Old Spice ads. Now back at your life. Now back at Old Spice. If you’re like me, you’ll notice a difference that’s a lot less attractive than a half-dressed ex-NFL player. The Man Your Man Could Smell Like is like a barrage of faulty assumptions about gender, masculinity, female desire, and sexuality.
Because hello, ladies, The Man Your Man Could Smell Like is talking to you. He’s acting out what you’re supposed to like, which includes him instead of other ladies, or geeks, or guys who don’t like carpentry and riding white stallions, or men who smell like things other than Old Spice. In fact, you’re supposed to be so enticed by this man who fulfills your every dream (including “tickets to that thing you love” which seems a little vague and dismissive to me) that you run right out and buy your man a bottle of Old Spice body wash right away.
Because you do like men, don’t you? And you’d especially like to fantasize about Isaiah Mustafa whenever you sniff that fella next to you who, unlike The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, presumably fails to live up to some outrageous standard of attractiveness and masculinity, but might be saved if you fragrance him properly. After all, Old Spice is what real men smell like. Not wild flowers, like you find in ladies’ scented body wash.
Hang on. Didn’t I mention carnations up there? Because according to Perfumezilla (a site I turned up Googling for what Old Spice smells like), Old Spice’s fragrance has “top notes [of] orange, sage, You’ll note the lack of explosions, shark wrestling, and sweaty hemp rope.
In the real world, assumptions about gender like “men do physically badass things while ladies swoon at them” are demeaning and hurtful, not just to women (who can be police officers, firefighters, and join the military) but to men as well (who can be stay-at-home fathers, teachers, and librarians). The presumption of heterosexuality – that “ladies” naturally desire the sort of man Old Spice is selling – erases and others the LGBTQ community. Within the paradigm in which The Man Your Man Could Smell Like exists, we’re unnatural. He isn’t talking to us.
On the right body, male or female, Old Spice can smell dead sexy. Isaiah Mustafa has a standing invitation to strip down to a towel in my bathroom just about any day of the week. A well-delivered “I’m on a horse” can reduce me to a fit of laugher. That’s all fine.
What’s not fine is that icky feeling I get when I look behind the joke. I feel erased, I feel like my friends are being erased, and those who aren’t are getting talked down to on every side. No one endears themselves to me doing things like that, and it certainly doesn’t entice me to hand somebody a fistful of cash so that I can smell nice according to somebody who wants me and mine to conform to a bad set of expectations.
The Man Your Man Could Smell Like is fun, and clever, but until Old Spice comes up with a campaign that makes me feel like I exist, I think I’d rather spend my money elsewhere.