So the Old Spice campaign was funny, surprising, and perfectly-calibrated. These would be reasons enough to like it. But I’m not going to let you stop there. Here’s how I think the campaign establishes an important new precedent—not for online advertising, but for online storytelling across the board.
Here’s where I think it could take us.
Start here: as it became apparent that this wasn’t just a one-time media drop, but instead an ongoing live performance—a spectacle in progress—I was reminded of something that I heard Rex Sorgatz say years ago. I’ll paraphrase, broadly: blogs are actually more related to live theater than they are to, say, newspapers. The things that make a blog good are almost exactly the things that make a live performance good—and the most important, the magic catalyst, is the interplay with the audience.
So extend that beyond blogs, to Twitter feeds and Kickstarter projects and ARGs and whatever it is that Old Spice just did. I really believe in the analogy.
You know what else this campaign made me think of? 48 Hour Magazine. There was that same sense of you-gotta-see-this, and then that same sense of can-they-really-do-it. It was an event—and you know how I feel about those.
I actually think most of the ideas in my events manifesto apply here, but let me highlight one in particular:
But [an event’s] urgency—its liveness, human vitality, and, frankly, its risk and unpredictability—is what makes it more than just another link in the stream.
It’s media as high-wire act. It’s immediacy—which is not coincidentally one of the eight things that are better than free.
If you’re a creative person interested in crafting worlds and telling stories and you are not chewing hard on this campaign, then you’ve missed the point (and quite possibly the whole zeitgeist). I actually think it’s a fluke that the substance of this stunt happened to be commercial. Is it so hard to imagine it another way? Let’s try:
The Old Spice videos weren’t one-liners. They actually pretty quickly established running themes and in-jokes. Taken all together, they mapped out a coherent world—a very small, weird world, populated by one man and one towel, but still: a world.
Now imagine for a moment that this hadn’t been the brain-child of some smart ad guys. Imagine instead that it was the opus of some young Lucas.
Imagine that all the parameters were the same: One actor. One scene. Simple, rich cinematography. Live production stretched over a couple of days. Lots of audience interaction. But the story he’s telling—the world he’s creating—is much more interesting. Maybe the scene is the cockpit of a spaceship; maybe it’s a cramped room in an interstellar hotel.
What would the Old Spice campaign look like if it was directed by a new Joss Whedon, just starting out?
Maybe I’m stretching this way too far; maybe it only works when it’s silly. But I don’t think so. I actually think you could get a lot more serious and a lot more sophisticated (although I’ll admit it would be harder to pull off). There are ways to interact with an audience that aren’t just jokey call-and-response.
Now, I don’t want to underplay the talent involved here; a room full of geniuses from Wieden+Kennedy made this media machine go. But this is where this new model—the live event, the ephemeral spectacle—saves us. Because to fund a room full of geniuses for a year, you need a business. But to fund a room full of geniuses for a day? All you need is a little chutzpah.
I think it’s awesome that Wieden+Kennedy did this first, though. I’d much rather work back from this campaign than work forward from some not-very-engaging piece of net performance art. (Which, of course, might already have been done. Who knows? Exactly.)
There’s more to say about why this was great—the fact that it produced a wide net of content, for instance, instead of a single video or a single live-stream. But you get the point. So I’ll leave you with one final reason to take this format seriously:
It’s fun to do. It’s tons of fun. Anybody who’s written a blog, or gotten deep into Twitter, or run a Kickstarter project, or pulled the strings on an ARG will tell you that there is a special joy to receiving real-time feedback on your work. There’s a special satisfaction to seeing its impact on the world immediately—and adjusting based on what you see. It’s alive, it’s electric, it’s addictive. It’s connected and communal.
The live theater folks had this figured out—their stages were just too small. Now we’ve got one that’s a lot bigger, and more flexible, too. So the question becomes: what’s on the playbill?