Everyone loves the Old Spice Guy who asks, "So ladies, should your man smell like an Old Spice man?" But there was a time when, if you used a sexualized, shirtless black man to sell a cleaning product, you got accused of racism. (That time was January of this year, the product was Clorox (CLX)'s Pine-Sol, and the commercial showed a sexy hunk mopping a floor in a role-reversal fantasy.)
Procter & Gamble (PG)'s Old Spice uses a similar device, but this time around it's being hailed as a stunning post-racial success. Sales are up. If you search the web for grumbling about Old Spice Guy you get the opposite: The Beast's Tricia Romano thinks Old Spice Guy is "good for all of America" because, like President Obama, pitchman Isaiah Mustafa appeals to everyone and has a Muslim name. The Root published an adoring essay titled "Why the Old Spice Guy Is Good for Black America":
There was a time when a muscular black man addressing America's "ladies"--not just black ladies, but all ladies--in a sexualized tone could have gotten him killed.Booker Rising took the same view. Old Spice Guy has even been pitted as the enemy of a ranting Mel Gibson in a video mashup.
If you're wondering where I'm going with all this, bear in mind that for many, a black man wearing nothing but a piece of cloth isn't a neutral image. Pepper Miller of the Hunter-Miller Group, an African American market research consultancy, says it represents:
... "Mandingo," a stereotype that represents the negative sexual and subservient image of Black men.To give you an idea of how far we've come (or not), bear in mind that it was only 35 years ago when Dino De Laurentiis released a movie titled "Mandingo," starring James Mason and Susan George, two huge stars at the time. (You can watch the startlingly racist trailer for the film here, but be warned it's appalling and unintentionally hilarious in equal measure, and you may not want to explain to your colleagues why you're watching it at work.)
So does Old Spice Guy's universal appeal prove we're living in a post-racial paradise? Yes, if you're willing to forget about the slightly darker skinned, slightly more aggressive, shirtless black man who used to pitch Old Spice, and whom P&G shunted off to the side in favor of the current Old Spice Guy. That Old Spice Guy was played by Terry Crews (pictured). He never garnered the following that Mustafa has.
Given that the Old Spice device -- a sexy black man wearing naught but a piece of cloth -- seems so freighted with unfortunate historic meaning, where's the outrage? If there is any, it's unlikely to emerge from Miller or her agency. She counts P&G as a client.