Isn't He Lovely: Why the Old Spice Guy Wasn't All that Revolutionary for Black Men in Advertising

Cristen Conger
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Earlier this year, personal care product brand Nivea pulled a men’s skincare ad and issued a public apology for its blatantly racist undertones. As reported on over at GOOD magazine, the ad in question “features a preppy, groomed black man holding the head of his former self, who’s sporting a beard, an afro, and a pissed-off expression.” The tag line? “Re-civilize yourself.” As in, “Hey, black men, get with white mainstream culture and get rid of that ‘uncivilized’ African hair!”

Isaiah Mustafa, the Old Spice guy, wearing a dozen Olympic medals.Nivea quickly yanked the ad, which was a part of a larger “Re-civilize” campaign that included white models as well, offered a mea culpa and tap danced away as quickly as possible. I’m still scratching my head as to how that ad got the green light in the first place, but considering the advertising industry’s questionable track record of how it portrays black men, it sadly isn’t all that surprising.

Advertising images are important to address because of that our old acquaintance from sociology class, Cultivation Theory. In a nutshell, Cultivation Theory maintains that the ads we see inform how we perceive ourselves as individuals and group members and how we relate to society at large. Complementary to Cultivation Theory is the Social Learning Theory, which posits that we naturally learn and adopt social roles from what we see around us. Vintage advertising (and plenty of ads still today), for instance, relegated women to the stereotypical housewife and mother roles that reflected and reinforced archaic gender norms. In that way, advertising—whether we like it or not—fosters societal expectations of how we should act and what we should want. And when it comes to black males, American mainstream advertising has continually hammered home images of black men playing subservient roles in day-to-day life, unless they’re athletes or entertainers. And that misrepresentation affects everyone, regardless of ethnicity or color, because we’re all being fed the same lies.

But before I dive into more disheartening advertising analyses, let’s take a moment with Isaiah Mustafa, better known as the “Old Spice Guy.” The hunky black spokesman got a lot of people asking what the viral moment meant for Western culture and advertising. At last, here’s a leading black male representing a leading American brand, so could it be a sign of changing times? Did the “Old Spice Guy” herald a post-racial era of advertising? Cord Jefferson over at The Root took it as a positive sign:

Problems with heteronormativity and misogyny—all women love diamonds!—aside, the Old Spice Guy spots are funny in the offbeat and visually exciting manner Internet audiences demand. A muscular black man addressing America’s ‘ladies’—not just black ladies, but all ladies—in a sexualized tone could have gotten him killed. The black male’s inherent maleness wasn’t an attractive quality; it was brutish and animalistic, something to be feared and pointed at as if looking at a zoo. Today, Old Spice Guy bucks that notion.

In the long view, however, the “Old Spice Guy” isn’t all that revolutionary in terms of how leading black males in advertising are portrayed. Yes, Jefferson makes a relevant point about how Mustafa’s parodied sexuality and physique were notably appealing, not threatening. But after I read a study of how black males have been portrayed in magazine advertising over the past 25 years, the “Old Spice Guy” lost some of his luster.

Patrice Siarras analyzed almost 2,700 ads from Ebony, Essence, The Source, Spin, and GQ and found that ads rarely feature black men to begin with. Only 7.6 percent and 10.4 percent of ads in GQ and Spin, respectively, included black men. That’s an improvement from the 1953 landmark study that found black men, women and children included in a mere 0.6 percent of ads. Though the quantity has improved over time, the quality still suffers, as Siarras explains:

Research has shown that blacks (and minorities in general) were often associated with predefined products (e.g., food, clothes, and shoes among others). They tend to be absent in ads that promote high-value products: personal computers, computers supplies, electronics among others. The product that is associated with a certain group of consumers is important because repeated associations ignite stereotypes.”

Sure enough, Siarras’ study confirmed those negative patterns. Out of 19 product categories she identified among the 2,700 ads, black models shilled most often for clothing and shoes (20.1 percent), followed by personal care products (18.2 percent). Personal care products, as in Old Spice, Nivea for Men, etc. If you really want to get down to brass tacks, from an advertising perspective, I’d argue that Dennis Haysbert, a.k.a. the “Allstate Guy,” is more groundbreaking than Mustafa and his washboard abs, in terms of the type of product represented and the calm authority he evinces. (Tech products, though, are reserved for Asian male spokespeople, amirite Best Buy?)

There are also bigger messages at work beyond which spokesman is more credible. As Siarras’ study underscores, it’s necessary to look at the body of advertising rather than just a single campaign to understand the social impact it can have. And just as we angrily shake our fists at Axe body spray campaigns that portray white, college-aged males as sexually aggressive dopes (not to mention their portrayal of women, and more on all of that here), Siarras’ assessment of how black males appear in advertising is even more troubling:

As a striking example, black male models were rarely represented in a home or family context, which compares well with early findings, or in business work, which could create the impression that the black man is unoccupied professionally, and ‘feeding the negative stereotype of the idle African-American, who is ‘just chillin” (Bailey, 2006), and totally disconnected with the concept of family or work. Furthermore, the overrepresentation of the black model with products such as hair products, clothes, shoes, cigarettes, or cars gave the false impression that black men have narrow interests.

So what do we do with all of this? For starters, we should start paying more attention to the picture that brands paint of black males, just as we have with advertising geared toward women. When bloggers slammed Nivea for tell black men to “Re-civilize” themselves, they got rid of it. Calling out and correcting brands for sexist, racist, and bigoted messaging also starts conversations about these issues, which is a good thing. And the conversations sparked by the “Old Spice Guy” and race in modern culture were also good things. But we’ve still got a long, long way to go—especially since this doesn’t even touch on how advertising characterizes other men of color.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

I think you bring up an

I think you bring up an interesting point about bow this doesn't even get into how other men of color are portrayed in the media. Asian and Middle Eastern men, for instance, through the history of media portrayals have been feminized. Would a studio even think to cast an Asian or Middle Eastern man in a role like the one Mustafa has? And how would audiences react?

Although, baggage aside, I enjoy these Old Spice commercials... Isaiah Mustafa, man... he's dreamy.

The biggest problem I have

The biggest problem I have with the Old Spice Guy is still the whole "smell like a man, man" tagline. It locks black men like him into oppressive, normative masculinity.

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