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The Old Spice Ad Guru Talks Super Bowl Commercials

Of the millions of commercials you’ve seen over your lifetime, probably few stand out as memorably as the 2010 Old Spice ad, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” It was smart, funny, slick, mystifying, and crafted with an attention to detail you’d expect to find in a feature-length movie, not a 30-second spot for body wash. Apparently we weren’t the only ones to think so: the spot earned Weiden+Kennedy, the ad agency behind it, a Primetime Emmy Award for “Outstanding Commercial.” In the wake of the most expensive night in advertisement—also known as the Super Bowl—we caught up with Eric Kallman, the co-creater of “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” In addition to creating some of advertising's most weird and awesome ideas, Kallman is also the brother of musician Matthew Kallman, formerly of the band Girls and currently playing with our cover star Christopher Owens. He talked about which ads from this year’s Super Bowl worked and which didn’t, watching people do stuff vs. doing stuff, how Isaiah Mustafa single-handedly saved the Old Spice ad, and why bad writers, like bad singers, should know when to quit.

Were you always in advertising? I got into advertising after I went to college for journalism. Out of college, I got a job at a NPR station. I was the local host of Morning Edition in Santa Barbara. I’d done a lot of work and internships in journalism and I’d found out that journalism wasn’t for me. A corny way to say it is that in journalism you watch people do stuff and—please take no offense to this—I wanted to do something more. I’d always been into improv comedy and I thought the only class I didn’t take in college was introduction to advertisement. I thought, Man, I think I can do the equivalent of most of the stuff I see.

I found Miami Ad School, worked my butt off, got my first job in New York and the guy who hired me, Gerry Graf was great. He gave me some opportunities and I lucked out. Journalism wasn’t for me—I felt it. Advertising definitely is. It’s a lot of work, but worth it.

But were you aware of the advertising world before that? I was aware of it, as much as anyone watching TV is aware of it, but that was really about it. I didn’t know much going in. But it’s cool, it combines some actual intelligent thinking with a lot of creative thinking. It clicked in my head pretty quickly that this was something I could be alright at, and something I really wanted to try.

What was the creative process like for the Old Spice ad? Let’s say the usual timeline for one commercial is maybe two weeks of creative work until you present scripts to a client. This one was really short—like a three day thing. Old Spice was going to discontinue their body wash because men didn’t buy it; people didn’t buy it. So they were going to do this one last-ditch effort to save that portion of their business.

People in advertising—creatives, and usually not the good ones—tend to shun away the account people and the strategists. They just think that all those people have to share is really dumb and that it’ll confuse their beautiful minds. But there was this planner who looked it up and said, “Do you guys realize that 85% of the people who buy this body wash are women or the significant others of men? They’re the ones who actually buy it.” When this factoid came up we started kicking around the idea of talking directly to women. That’s when Craig, my old partner, said, “Look at your man. Now look at me…” Most commercials you think about visually. But that one came out as a radio script—30 seconds of what a macho guy would be saying. Then we just thought, well what if you see what the guy says. In the back of our minds we had this idea, Oh my gosh, I think this doable in one take, which it ended up being.

Once you had the idea, were you confident it was going to be a big hit? Oh, no. We cast on December 23rd. Usually, for an audition you call 200 [people], and 220 show up. We called 200 people and we had like 18—it was almost Christmas Eve. We were scared out of our minds to find anyone good. The guy who is in those commercials, Isaiah Mustafa, didn’t do that character and voice that he does in the original audition. We called him back because he was literally one of maybe two handsome and in shape guys—which you just needed to be, you know what I mean? He invented that character and did it in callbacks. We had a guy in there before him for a half hour and Isaiah definitely thought he had lost the job. When he came in, he took a risk and did that voice. We’d only had the guy before in the room for half an hour out of desperation. Isaiah came in and did that voice and we turned around and said, Thank you God.

And how did Old Spice react when you showed it to them? Initially they said that they hated it and that it sucked the wind out of the room. We were so beaten and battered from missing Christmas and being on the road constantly that we were like, “Maybe it is bad. Sorry.” It was supposed to be on for Super Bowl but we made a deal to start running it the next day, which they did. It caught on so fast that it ended up winning a couple Super Bowl polls and it wasn’t even on the game. You never know when something’s going to catch fire to that degree.

You’ve judged ads for award shows before. What makes a good ad? You want to see something and hopefully feel something that’s new. Everything’s been done so many times that you want originality. Not just in what you’re seeing in the creative takeaway, but in the idea as well. Originality is probably the hardest thing to come across in advertising. After that, you’re looking at craft—you want it to be done well, no matter what it is. But it all basically boils down to the concept and the big idea.

Did you pay any attention to the commercials Sunday night? No. We were hosting and we had about thirty people over. I’m a big, big die-hard 49ers guy so I basically spent every moment talking to or texting with friends from back home.

Dodge Ram, "Farmer"

Yes, this is one of the few I remember from the game. I mean, Paul Harvey. If you don’t know who he is and you hear something so wonderfully written and so wonderfully read by such a talent for the first time or know who he is and have heard it a hundred times before, this is just one of the most frickin’ wonderful pieces of audio content there is. They borrowed it and turned it into a way of branding their trucks. I can tell you that as a guy who for the first time in a long time watched the Super Bowl without express interest in the advertising—actually zero interest in the advertising—this is one of two I stopped and watched. From just a dude-on-the-couch-perspective it broke through. I thought this was well done. Creatively…did they write this and make this? No. But is it a fabulous piece of content that they put decent-enough visuals to to make a nice piece? Yes. Branding spots like this can get really into themselves—too artsy, and too overdone. I thought this was simple and I actually secretly liked it.

Doritos, “Goat 4 Sale”

To me, that wasn’t funny. I guess when you’re a writer or a creative in advertisement you have a real keen eye for stuff you think is ripping off other commercials. There’s a really well-known skittles commercial called “Rabbit” (hyperlink: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HEF49nMsM8) about a singing rabbit that a guy trades his skittles for. He loves it first until it won’t stop singing and it drives him nuts, kind of like this goat that won’t stop eating. That rabbit commercial is great, and this is not great. It didn’t make me laugh. I react initially to production value a lot. The casting is a total turnoff—it seems like people that aren’t funny trying to be funny. The actor and the wardrobe…the music is corny. The production quality is poor. The shots are poorly framed. It’s got a laundry list of things that annoy me.

GoDaddy, “Big Kiss”

I took in two commercials yesterday with no intention of taking in any ads and it was the Ram one and this one. It’s just going for shock value and I guess it got people’s attention. I don’t think it made anyone go to GoDaddy with the intention of utilizing their business. The shock value, which to me is whatever, overthrows any kind of message about GoDaddy. You spent all this money on a famous person, and you did this big shocking thing, and you spent all this money to put it on the game, and for what? I couldn’t see them getting any business out of this. I also couldn’t see them being more liked as a brand for this. To me, it’s kind of a waste.

A lot of people do this weird, weird thing. They “go for.” A lot of times it’s going for zany, or going for wacky. They’re not “doing.” Every creative has a tone and sensibility. It’s how they write, and what they write, and it’s what they’re best at—being themselves. When you see people “trying to do” things, it’s obviously not in their skill-set. I could never write that farmer sonnet, not in a million years. A lot of people try to be funny who aren’t, or vice versa. You kind of should know better. It’s like the bad auditions on American Idol that are for real—the non-joke ones. It’s like, you don’t know you’re not good at singing? Really?

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The Old Spice Ad Guru Talks Super Bowl Commercials