The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

Why Old Spice matters


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 eventand 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?


Tim Carmody says…

I’ve been wondering less about whether it only works if it’s silly, and more about the question of a “coherent world.” Because while a lot of the success of these short-form bursts seems to depend on creating a coherent world, a lot of it depends on having that self-sufficient world at least partially established. The flow draws pretty heavily on stock. In this case, the stock of two — just two! — commercials! (Isn’t it remarkable what can count as stock/a work?)

Let’s think about some of the examples we’ve been talking about: the Old Spice guy, Strong Bad’s emails, Wise and Cranky Kaplan. I’ve got to tell ya, since Alexis’s second-degree praise, I started following the fake bros Kaplan, and I’m not sure I get it. I’m sure it works better if you actually know who this guy is, or have more experience with his type. So far, it just seems like half-baked insult humor. Maybe in time, I’ll build up enough references to have stock. (I think I just turned the economic metaphor into one about soup, but I’ll keep going.)

A few more examples that I think are pretty amazingly literary: Fake Steve Jobs’s blog, Conan O’Brien’s Twitter, Colson Whitehead’s Twitter, Feminist Hulk’s Twitter. These guys are funny, sure; it’s well-written, and that’s important; they’re playing characters, and that seems to be supremely important for the literary quality of what they’re doing; they’re creating worlds, and those worlds are drawn on what we already know — and that might be a horizon of possibility for these things.

Not that you can’t build up stock from a series of strings — blogs and comic strips plus the whole world of serial media shows that you can — but it takes time, and that time-investment puts some hedges around just who can get into that world, and how quickly.

I think Tim’s point about stock AND flow is a good one. How much does the original “The guy your guy could smell like/I’m on a horse” spot determine the possibility of the rest of the event? If it wasn’t seen, who would respond to it? How many of the jokes would make sense without the world it created?

How would this be different if this were a guy in a cockpit? What would the character be responding to?

I really like you’re description of this campaign in terms of performance. I think that’s dead-on. But the big question, as always, is what is the performance trying to do? Old Spice Man is selling Old Spice (the style if not the product in so many words). Most “performance artists” are trying to make visible or break down certain ideas or social practices.

Oddly, Tom Bissell’s video game writing may help point out is that the one thing these new, interactive mediums doesn’t really do is to tell what we normally think of as a story.

So back to that guy in the cockpit. If it’s Lucas, trying to tell a space opera, what would he gain? Imagine Nathan Fillion doing a series of these as Mal Reynolds. Maybe it could have saved Firefly (which would have been worthwhile on its own), but how much “canonical” control do you think Joss Whedon would have been willing to give up over the story itself?

Re: the value of the original—I think you’re right, but I will submit that I’d never seen the Old Spice commercials ’til the YouTube clips started coming. I know, I know, I’m a weirdo w/out a TV. Still.

Re: what’s the performance trying to do—well, I think “create a world that people get interested in” is a fine answer to that. And I’m not imagining Lucas or Whedon doing it as established creators; I’m imagining them doing it as new entrants. I think the real opportunity here is for new voices.

Because that’s the big challenge for media made by people who aren’t already famous: how does it get any attention? I think this kind of live-ness can be an important advantage.

I think it’s a lot harder for new voices to pull this off, without having some kind of longer-form anchor, especially if they’re not playing with items with a public interest. Not impossible — see Homestar Runner, just about every blog and comic strip, etc. — but hard.

Remember the author-function/work-function post; unless you have done X, most people will ask, “just who are you again?”

Now one way to get over this is precisely what they did here: go for sheer quantity. 100+ bite-sized videos in just a couple of days. That is a work — interactive and atomized, but it has a scale and perceived unity all the same. It is an event. A show in many, many acts.

Since we mentioned video games: one of the things that I, like Bissell, am always saying about games/the interactive is that rather than telling a story (or producing an aesthetic object) they produce worlds and systems of rules which then allows the user/player to move through that world according to those rules (or, to produce an arena with no fixed object for the subject to constitute his/her own relation to).

So, this kind of semi-interactive, ongoing it’s-not-quite-a-narrative might be better thought of as an arena for play that works by a set of particular rules. Here, we play by ‘interacting’ even though the majority of interactions are one-way. Because the event produces the effect of an ongoing dialogue – the actual responses obviously being the expectation to the rule – it is, as Robin quite rightly says, the immediacy and the immediacy of the cultural self-reflexiveness (sorry, ugly phrase) that becomes the ‘rules of the game’ being played here. We play and participate often simply by looking – but because there is no overarching narrative, and its purposefully temporary, we play and interact nonetheless.

Murky, as this is a half-formed thought. But here, we have the parodic-hyperbolic figure of Old Spice dude engaging with both the stereotypes that produce desire but also the knowing futility of the desire to be like him, creating this strange event that, more than anything, is about its now-ness, precisely because it evokes ‘a feeling’ of interactivity (or, in performance art terms, the impossibility or reproducing the event i.e. its temporal specificity).

Yikes. Does any of that make sense?

Tim Carmody says…

The last paragraph is the murkiest, but otherwise — stunningly perfectly. I think you just showed how this bridges traditional advertising, story-oriented video gaming, and ARGs.

I also like how you focus on the antisymmetry of the interaction, and how that doesn’t negate that it’s still interactive. We may be players, but the Old Spice man (or better, Wieden+Kennedy) is the Dungeon Master.

YES. Writer/director as Dungeon Master. I love that.

The nice thing about the Old Spice campaign is that it did produce a durable record. (Not exactly an aesthetic object, but close.) It’s not nearly as much fun to go back and watch the videos now, of course—but it’s still kinda fun. Lots of new people will discover them, and laugh at them, as tales of this audacious campaign spread. That’s cool.

It’s as if playing through a D&D scenario created a movie that you could go back and watch later.

Well, he’s not just working within the stock of the two Old Spice commercials, but the creative team was also working with our pre-existing beliefs / opinions about different communities / famous individuals in social media. The one directed to anonymous at 4chan was a play off how we all see 4chan. You can sub in Kevin Rose, the reddit community, and the twitter celebs, such as Ashton, Demi, and Ellen, and see that they had a lot to play with in their improv toolbox.

This may be my reflexive contrarian bubbling up, but I’ve doubts of the Old Space campaign being the future of anything. I may be wrong, though. Regardless, its success will shoot off countless copy-cats that lack any sort of vigor or vitality. We can count on that. People will copy the format rather than the main driveshaft: the character. I would love to see this with someone like Colbert or Conan, and would detest it with Leno or Jared the Subway guy.

A few questions I have:
1) Does this only work because our character is someone we secretly long to be? (Funny, confident, looks great in a towel.)
2) Does the frequency of the posting of videos eventually work against the serial nature of it?
3) Isn’t this just the video blog of a fictional character?
4) What will be the stock? A couple 30-second spots is enough to establish a character, but what will be the substantial offering be here?
4) Does this campaign only work because of the the cartoonification (awful word, sorry) of manliness the past few years? See Don Draper, the appropriation of mountain-man-style by urbanites, Dues Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World campaign, Chuck Norris jokes, and the general pendulum swing of male identity in the opposite direction from metrosexual a few years ago. All these campaigns feel like left-over Chuck Norris jokes to me.

I’m conflicted: part of me is disappointed to have this concentration of attention on something schlepping anti-persperant. On the other, I wonder if it would have been possible with anything other than advertising for the first go-round. I guess I can’t wait for someone else to do something interesting with the format, so I can love that thing instead of this thing.

One more thing: the thing that is compelling to me about the videos is that the Old Spice guy somehow inhabits the same world as us and does not.

He speaks differently, he produces diamonds from his hand, he floats into swimming pools that hold motorcycles, yet, references Twitter celebrities, knows about the websites we visit, and talks to us. It’s like a cartoon character stepping out into the real world for us to interact with. It reminds me of the delight I get from seeing Sesame Street characters on the late night shows, or this video of Elmo visiting Ricky Gervias’ office.

Totally agree w/ all of these points.

I especially like this question, of course: “What will be the stock?”

In an alternate universe, where this is the first foray of a young Lucas, I love the idea that maybe a spectacle like this builds the momentum (and secures the funding) for a feature film.

A friend of mine implicitly criticized Snarkarket for being an “academic” site, which, this comment thread aside, I think misses something big.

When Robin in particular talks about a big new thing, he’s usually not really making a big claim of “this is the new narrative,” or “this is totally different than anything that has existed before.” What he’s usually saying is “I can totally see how someone could use this to do something great.”

To which the response is not “eh, I’m not sure that this is really new,” but “go, man, go!”


Yeah, I was thinking about this, too. Not the academic part. (Although I think my posts have gotten more academic since I quit academia because I have less of an outlet.) But the bit about what it means when Robin (or anybody here) says “_____ if the future of media.” Besides just making up something sensational to drive up pageviews, which is important for our no-advertising.

This is a very academic answer. But I think you could analyze that statement this way: “_____ is a revealing fragment of what the future of media could/might/should be.” Or, “The future of media is the structural horizon in which ______ is possible.” Or, yes: “Go, man, go!”

Kelley Rickenbaker says…

Here’s a thought from the sidelines. Take the Old Spice guy campaign workflow, the connectivity, the timeliness and the iterative nature of the content that is produced and move it whole hog into the “real world” of televised news on the Internet.

Online storytelling doesn’t have to be limited to fiction…

Big event or little event. Haiti, the Arizona border, Jimmy Buffet fundraising for the folks on the Gulf.

Producing such an animal would be great fun.

And as Robin pointed out, “There are ways to interact with an audience that aren’t just jokey call-and-response.”

If a key driver here for the viewers is the pleasure of engagement, what might be the outcome of exposing some news event (from serious to not-so-serious,) to this type of treatment?

The precursor to this, of course, is improv theater. The audience contributes something, and then the actors riff on it, however they like, to build out a coherent world.

This is different, not only from the more global nature of online, but also that many of the contributors don’t realize that they are, in fact, contributors until they get riffed on.

This is indeed brilliant work by Wieden & Kennedy. I am even more impressed by Procter & Gamble. They took a huge risk here as a client, trusted the agency and built a relationship that made this leap of faith possible. P&G deserves kudos for courageous investment and collaboration that moves our entire culture forward.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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