In February 2010 Old Spice aired a television commercial that would quickly gain a life of its own far beyond the initial campaign's scope. Entitled 'Smell like a Man, Man' or 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like', the campaign was created by the ad agency of Weiden+Kennedy. Despite a mixed reception from journalists at the time, the spots became immensely popular through video sharing sites like YouTube, and it quickly achieved the status of a 'viral' video. The first Old Spice commercial: The Man Your Man Could Smell Like
The basic premise of the ads featured the eponymous "Man Your Man Could Smell Like" (played by actor Isaiah Mustafa) engaging in rapid fire, almost smug monologues, maintaining constant eye contact and a nonchalant manner while all types of surreal activities occur around him. The ads were directed primarily at female viewers, on the logic that women tended to make most of the household purchasing decisions concerning hygiene products.
While I may disagree with that faintly sexist stereotype, I have to admit that the campaign itself was a work of genius.
And therein lies the problem.
Any time a product, service, ad campaign, band, etc. becomes successful, imitators are almost inevitable. Whether they are an honest homage or an attempt to cash in on another's success, they start appearing almost immediately.
It was inevitable then that the Old Spice commercials would garner their share of imitators. In the case of one such imitator, Dairy Queen, we can learn a valuable lesson about the difference between copying and adapting.
The Dairy Queen commercial features a handsome young man moving through a surreal landscape with confidence and nonchalance while the dialogue becomes more and more bizarre. This could be dismissed as Dairy Queen's clumsy attempt to recreate the magic that vaulted the Old Spice commercials to internet fame. However there is a bigger lesson here.
Marketing and advertising have always been about finding the right story to tell to the target audience and connecting on an emotional level. It is less about the product itself and more about how the product makes people feel. The genius of the Old Spice campaign was the way it connected with consumers in an entertaining way. Mustafa was funny and engaging, and the surreal, 'continuous shot' style of the commercial fascinated and entertained viewers. Once the commercial reached the internet, the pieces were in place to create a viral sensation. The commercials succeeded in convincing younger men to explore Old Spice's products and sales rose as a result.
The Dairy Queen commercial on the other hand, fell flat. The basic elements were there, but the execution was far from the mark. In the same way that tossing a pile of automotive parts into a box will not spontaneously create a car, tossing the elements used by a successful commercial into an ad will not spontaneously create a internet phenomenon.
Putting aside the obviously different production values of the two commercials, the biggest difference between them, and (in my opinion) the reason one worked and the other did not, was that in the Old Spice ad, Mustafa's 'Old Spice Man' had a narrative. In the first commercial, he was telling a story, branding Old Spice bodywash as an aspirational product. There was a definite and contiguous narrative thread running through each commercial, connecting the product on an emotional level.
The Dairy Queen ads were simply a study in randomness. It was as if the creators of the campaign saw what Old Spice had done, but only in the most superficial way. The settings and elements were disconnected, and in no way evoked an emotional response to the product, which at best felt like an afterthought. There was no narrative thread connecting the product with the viewer. To be honest, it seemed as if there was no target audience in mind, which only seemed to dilute the message even further.
The bottom line here is that being inspired by another company's idea is not a bad thing at all. Often you can learn from their successes (not to mention their mistakes) to craft something even better. The problem arises when the idea is simply 'copied and pasted' without thought to the deeper narrative, or even to the target audience.
It's been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That may be true, but sometimes, it's just laziness.