Smells Like Teem Spirit: An Old Spice Commercial


The Birth of Venus (Sandro Botticelli)

Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (c. 1486) is, for me, eerily evoked when the man separates into his “true” self, shown placed in the center on water both balancing on a log and walking towards us; and it is not a stretch to say that while late capitalism is a kind of desperate reverse-renaissance, its ads are often brilliant, as epitomized by Old Spice’s advertising campaign in which our spacial perception is toggled and joyfuly toyed with as a confident and attractive man seamlessly and effortlessly, in one take, morphs from one manly or romantic cliche into another, all possible by an intricate choreography of timing, minor special effects, and cunning set design.

It would be daft not to notice the religious connotations as the man walks on water towards the “dream kitchen [he] built you with his own hands” while running an electric hand saw along a table, a scene in which the artifice is broken by the explicit edifice of the kitchen. (More complex ideas of the artifice of edifice — sets within sets ad infin, like implosive fractals — are entertained in the 2008 film Synecdoche, New York.) The cake says “You’re Beautiful” in edible cursive, impossible writing into a woman’s heart. There is a deep, perhaps necessary, cynicism which mocks the impossibilities of all his ventures.

The following swan dive continues to play off the broken artifice, a complicit wink between the ad and its viewers, his descent being most dramatically unnatural and absurd; one can imagine stunt wires before they were removed in post-production, key prefix being “post-” in this post-everything world. Into the jacuzzi he lands, followed by its abrupt, almost violent mechanical collapse. When the water breaks (a kind euphemism for a glorious yet disgusting thing), I am again reminded of birth — not Venus this time, but a black baby Jesus emerging from said amniotic fluid, fast forwarded 33 years into a man. He, maybe now Adam, is suddenly is wearing jeans, perhaps in light of his expulsion from Eden. One asks: where is Eve?

She is the woman being referred to in the commercial: you, the myth of the second person collective pronoun, for there is no “you” or “we,” only a demographic report. We, simply, are the target audience: middle-class men with suspect taste in cologne, perhaps aged 30 – 40 in suburbs 30 – 40 minutes from whatever metropolitan city we used to live in when we were younger and greater. We, who wear Old Spice in our commitment to never get laid again. As for “she,” she is ideally sitting next to you on the couch watching TV laughing pre-coitus at the commercial.

The man ends with a rhetorical question, “So ladies, should your man smell like an old spice man?” while, bearing his ultimate manifestation, is straddling a motor cycle and holding the product in hand. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the engine running, implication being that after the fade out he’ll ride to some woman’s house and make Old Spice redolent love — though that would never happen. What happens is you leave Wal-Mart with some new Old Spice body wash and a dozen condoms, fated to realize some laborious five hours later that the latter presumption was simply that. Your sack teems with sperm, which is really what this commercial is about: stunted virility and the aesthetics of self-effacement, for the commercial’s irony rests on the unobjected mockery of its target audience. So then you, we, us, whoever, go online to meet strangers, which you just did. Hello.