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07.18.10

The Old Spice Man's Internet Triumph

Old Spice’s marketing gimmick—a macho guy played with a wink by Isaiah Mustafa—has reached a crescendo on TV and the Web. Tricia Romano on the evolution of black male sex symbols.

From the moment the Old Spice commercial featuring Isaiah Mustafa aired in February America swooned. Who, we wanted to know, was this dashing, tall, dark and handsome figure with impossible abs, a gleaming smile, and a twinkle in his eyes? (Oh, yes, and riding on a horse. One mustn't forget the horse).

Mustafa quickly became a household face—if not name—as the original commercial eventually racked up 13 million views on YouTube.

He's hot enough to make celebrity lesbian Ellen DeGeneres giggle like a school girl when he visited her set, causing her to beg him to recite his Old Spice lines.


Old Spice Guy Hangs Up His Towel

Video screenshot

And this week, on the heels of its second installment in the series (featuring Mustafa swan diving into a jacuzzi and landing on a motorcycle), the company invited people to ask questions of " Old Spice Man" on Twitter which Mustafa answered in 30-second clips on YouTube. The result was an instant viral success—the Old Spice YouTube channel was ranked No. 1 on the website. (At least one person wasn’t impressed: Sockington the cat—who has resisted using his popularity for commercial purposes— threw up his paw: “HELLO @ OLDSPICE much interest at your viral marketing campaign at sockington hq/litterbox I AM A CAT WITH 68 TIMES MORE FOLLOWERS discuss.”

Sockington’s dissent aside, the success of the Old Spice commercials hinges not only on the clever, almost absurdist imagery and writing, but on Mustafa and his inherent sex appeal.

The Root argued this week in an essay called, "Why The Old Spice Guy Is Good For Black America" that "the success of the Old Spice Guy ... might actually be a sign that being a black man in America is getting slightly easier." Cord Jefferson points out that not so long ago, the black man's role in advertising was as a scary figure to contrast against the white so-called gentlemen; or more recently, as a subservient figure.

I'll go one further than Jefferson: The Old Spice Guy isn't just good for Black America, Mustafa's place in the pop culture pantheon is good for all of America.

As Farai Chideya, former NPR journalist and host of forthcoming radio show, Pop and Politics Radio, explained to me, "You have certain black actors who could sell things, but they usually did them in these nonsexual ways, like Bill Cosby and Jello. Then you had people who were sexual like Billy Dee Williams, who pitched a brand for a black audience," she said. "This is something new where it's for a mainstream, general mixed-race audience."


Caption: Mustafa filmed video responses to some of his lucky Twitter followers, including actress Alyssa Milano.

Video screenshot

The choice of a black man as the desired sex object for a national advertising spot aimed at mainstream America, which is to say white America, is particularly perfect right now. It's hard to say whether Mustafa and Old Spice would have paired up 10 or 20 years ago, unless he was a famous star athlete like O.J. Simpson. One could argue that having a handsome black president has softened a lot of people’s ideas of what’s attractive and sexy—Obama’s shaky polls notwithstanding.

Interestingly, Old Spice had another black spokesman before Mustafa: Terry Crews. The hyperactive ad series featured the ex-NFL linebacker topless and yelling in an intense (and funny) way. Chideya says of Crews: "He's not as handsome as Isaiah, but he's also really funny in a way that's more within the black vernacular." Of Mustafa, she says, "This guy is no doubt black, but he's someone who is the modern, urbane, living-in-a-post-racial-Fort Greene kind of a guy."

While Obama braves the fast-moving political tide (we love him, we are irritated and disappointed with him, we loathe him, we love him again), here is this other stunningly handsome, funny black man on our TV, transcending color lines, with—it should be noted—a Muslim name.

"In some ways he's the post-Obama era," said Chideya. "President Obama has a sense of humor, he can crack jokes, but people had a hard time cracking jokes about him. They learned to do it eventually. Now you can see you can have a playful version of a black man."

Mustafa is being judged purely on his talent, his good looks, and yes, his immaculate abs. (The Situation should be taking notes.) The former NFL player possesses an electric charisma and a self-deprecating sense of humor that only serves to make him even more likable.

One hopes that Mustafa's success—like Obama's—has a domino effect. As The Wrap reported in June, black actors have more roles in Hollywood, but fewer shows. (Essence helpfully logged a few of the jobs lost to canceled shows in a slideshow. RIP Law and Order.) And last fall, the Screen Actors Guild released some disheartening numbers showing that roles for minorities in general had decreased 2 percent from a high in 2007. (The statistics showed minority performers play a mere 27.5 percent of parts in film and on television.)

With the success of Mustafa's casting, perhaps other ad agencies, casting agents, film and TV directors, will be open to the idea that their lead character or spokesperson can be of any race, and don't just cast a de facto white guy. It would have been just as easy for Old Spice to hire some blonde no-name actor with a chiseled chin and a nice tan, but they didn't. (We thank them, endlessly.)

"For a long time black people didn't want to do sexy product placement, because they thought that was bad for the race, but it makes me happy," said Chideya. "I think that [stigma] is fading."

He's not “hot for a black guy,” he’s just hot. He's hot enough to make celebrity lesbian Ellen DeGeneres giggle like a school girl when he visited her set, causing her to beg him to recite his Old Spice lines.

Ellen isn’t alone—gay men love the Old Spice Man, as much as straight women apparently do. An AfterElton.com staffer picked Mustafa as one of his 10 hottest men, writing, that Mustafa "almost makes me want to buy some Old Spice. Almost."

He's hot enough to make Tyler Perry—who, after telling him that he got the part in an upcoming movie, Colored Girls, on Oprah—nervously beg Mustafa to put his shirt back on.

He's hot enough to be named by HollywoodLife.com, the Bonnie Fuller-helmed mainstream gossip site, as their official " Fourth of July Holly-Hunk." (He gratefully accepted that honor in a YouTube clip, while awarding himself the world's giant trophy, and sweet talking the writer, Lindsay).

He's hot enough that a California-based producer/director Johannes S. Beals asked him to propose to his girlfriend for him in the Twitter stream, without worrying she'd leave him for the pitchman. (She said yes.)

As Chideya pointed out, the key to Mustafa's success—besides his abs—is his sharply honed comic timing. "I think humor has been one of those things that goes into the game play around how stereotypes evolve. Humor is the icebreaker that pushes through the tundra of despair and discouragement."

Since the commercials aired, Mustafa's career path has moved faster than a speeding bullet; this spring, he was signed by NBC to a talent deal—which means the network will be shopping for starring vehicles for him. Writers, perhaps there’s a show that should revolve around a guy with hunky abs—on a horse.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Tricia Romano is an award-winning writer who has written about pop culture, style, and celebrity for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story, about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry," The Sober Bunch."