Text Remediation: Humor

Remediated by: Estrella, Karl, Cassy, Katy

Anthropologist Mary Douglas (1991) examines the very thin line sepa- rating a joke from an insult: a joke expresses something a community is ready to hear; an insult expresses something it doesn’t want to consider. Thus, recognizing a joke involves exchanging judgments about the world and defining oneself either with or against others. Content creators can endear themselves to a particular audience by showing they understand its sensibilities and can alienate themselves by miscalculating that audience’s sensibilities. Humor is not simply a matter of taste: it is a vehicle by which people articulate and validate their relationships with those with whom they share the joke.

Consider a breakout advertising success from 2010: Old Spice’s “Smell Like a Man, Man” campaign. Launched in February by ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, the television commercials feature Isaiah Mustafa as Old Spice Guy, “a handsome but somewhat inscrutable figure who engaged in random acts of manliness”: “the man your man could smell like” (Potter 2010). 

Promising to transform customers simply through their use of the product, the spots draw on some of advertising’s own clichés and cultural touchstones. It parodies not only the pitchman but also the commercially manufactured ideal man—all “chiseled torso and ridicu- lously self-assured tone” (Edwards 2010). Old Spice has employed such techniques multiple times in the past. For instance, a commercial in2007 showed how the product could grow chest hair instantly (a feat its competitor in the side-by-side comparison couldn’t manage). This manliness made it the ideal choice for “real man situations, like basket- ball, recon, and frenching.” A 2008 spot featured a spokesman sliding around the entirety of a baseball diamond while he promoted Old Spice as the “bare-knuckle, straight-on tackle, heavyweight deodorant that gives the best game, set, and match, high-stepping, sudden-death, double-overtime performance in the pit fight against odor.” By 2009, the product was shown as the deodorant of choice for the winners of manly competitions such as arm wrestling, the karate chopping of concrete blocks, and chainsaw carving. In the latter case, the Old Spice deodorized winner carved his own block of wood into a chain- saw, and he then used it to carve his competitor’s block of wood into a sculpture, all before the other guy could start his saw. Old Spice has long experimented with parodying the advertising industry’s construction of masculinity.

For the impressions minded, by September 2010, the original Old Spice Guy spot had received in excess of 25 million views on YouTube, while the Old Spice channel showcasing all the campaign’s videos received about 94 million views. At that time, the brand had acquired more than 90,000 Twitter followers and more than 675,000 Facebook fans. Perhaps in relation, sales of Old Spice grew 30 percent from February through July 2010, the five months after the new advertising campaign had launched (Edwards 2010).

We might see the “Smell Like a Man, Man” campaign as a product of Old Spice’s ongoing experiments with finding the right humor- ous tone to mock notions of masculinity (Caddell 2010). Unlike the previous spots, this campaign engaged both male and female viewers, as the commercials are directly addressed to the “ladies” who are often purchasers of body wash for their significant other. Its self-parodic elements implicitly grant users permission to adopt and adapt the content for their own purposes.

Parodies of the Old Spice commercial spread across the Internet as users drew on the spot’s form and structure to conduct their own conversations. Men of all body types and sizes shot spoofs featuring “more realistic” men your man could smell like. The children’s television show Sesame Streetproduced a version featuring the character Grover that promised to help viewers “smell like a monster.” Australian political comedy program Yes We Canberra! shot a version critiquing the status of gay marriage down under, and another Australian Broadcasting Corporation spoof featured an animated Tony Abbott, leader of the Australian opposition party, begging to be “the man your PM should be.” Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library even produced a version selling the merits of studying in the library.

“Smell Like a Man, Man” serves as a good exemplar of a “pro- ducerly” text. The video has a clearly defined message, but the absurdity creates gaps “wide enough for whole new texts to be produced in them” (Fiske 1989b, 104). Wieden+Kennedy enlisted Mustafa to shoot 186 individual videos over 48 hours and posted them on YouTube, responding to comments sent to Old Spice Guy via Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook and to video responses left on YouTube in real time. Old Spice Guy responds multiple times to Alyssa Milano (whom he flirts with), offers a marriage proposal on behalf of a Twitter user, and answers a lot of quite random questions. Many response videos don’t feature a single mention of Old Spice products—they respond to people talking about the campaign. Ultimately, the campaign uses its humor in all its exten- sions to demonstrate how Old Spice “gets” a certain mentality and is a meaningful participant in the dialogue of particular audience members (in the case of the online extension, communities that are cognizant of the traditional logics of advertising, fully conversant in irony, and immersed in social media platforms).

Not every group appreciated the outreach, however. When Old Spice targeted the trolls at 4Chan, they responded with a mixture of bemusement and overt ridicule; one wrote, “This was the first time I’ve ever seen someone market to /b/ and I am glad it was a thing as epic and funny and as close to our humor as this so fuck off,” while another posted an image macro of the Old Spice Guy labeled “marketing cam- paign troll.” In this case, Old Spice’s humor may have been directed at the wrong audience, offending some in a community expressly built to be not just noncommercial but often anticommercial.

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