Behind the Towel: An Oral History of the Legendary Old Spice Ad

For the 10th anniversary, its creators look back

Ten years ago, Procter & Gamble wanted to pitch Old Spice Red Zone After Hours body wash in a Super Bowl commercial.

P&G asked Wieden + Kennedy Portland to create a fun spot targeting women, as research showed they made 60 percent of all men's body-wash purchases.

W+K creative team Craig Allen and Eric Kallman chose to set the commercial—its opening seconds, at any rate—in a shower, with a hunky dude in a towel talking up the product. That made sense. The same couldn't be said for much else in the sublimely silly 30 seconds that went on to captivate popular culture and launched one of the most beloved marketing campaign ever made.

Portrayed by actor and former football wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa, this particular stud turned the suave up to 10. His confident, rapid-fire delivery described the acton unfolding on screen, as he moved—seemingly at the whim of the personal-care gods—from a shower to a boat and onto a horse.

The team accomplished all this in a single take, shooting on location at a beach in Malibu, with CGI used only briefly, as gems poured through Mustafa's outstretched hand.

Old Spice | The Man Your Man Could Smell Like

Mustafa's oft-mimicked opening lines—"Hello, ladies. Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back at your man. Now back to me"—provided fantastic fodder for water-cooler and breakroom chats. That bit, along with other loopy lines from the spot, entered the lexicon, punctuated late-night talk-show monologues, peppered sketches on Saturday Night Live and punched up corporate and political speeches.

Here's the rest of Mustafa's shirtless soliloquy about some dude ("your man"), who, we're told, would smell a whole lot better with some help from Old Spice:

Sadly, he isn't me. But if he stopped using lady-scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like he's me. Look down. Back up. Where are you? You're on a boat, with the man your man could smell like. What's in your hand? Back at me. I have it. It's an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love. Look again. The tickets are now diamonds. Anything is possible when your man smells like Old Spice and not a lady.

Ultimately, Mustafa proclaims, "I'm on a horse," and indeed he was, sliding into the saddle with help from machinery hidden from the camera's gaze. 

Allen and Kallman's creation, seamlessly brought to life by MJZ director Tom Kuntz, stood out with its cheeky style and self-awareness, providing a punchy pivot from the sitcom-y commercials of the time. It flowed—as if in a single, fluid take—from prime-time pods and YouTube playlists (where it proved particularly popular), into the collective consciousness.

And, it never even ran on the big game!

P&G chose instead to drop the spot online over Super Bowl weekend in 2010, where it quickly gained momentum, propelled at least partly by a TWiT Specials interview of Allen and Kallman. The spot then broke on TV on Monday, Feb. 8. 

What's more, "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" boosted P&G's bottom line, helping to increase Red Zone body-wash sales 60 percent by May 2010 (the goal had been 15 percent). By July, sales of the product had doubled. 

Mustafa and his towel kept plugging away for Old Spice—notably, he read quickie quips penned by Allen and Kallman in June 2010 for a series of trend-setting fan-response videos. Through the years, he starred in various ads for the brand, sharing the spotlight at one point with another buff former NFL player, Terry Crews.

Today, you can smell the victory anew, thanks to Mustafa's return last week in a trio of 10th-anniversary-timed spots. They retain the weird wonder of the original while adding a fresh face: Isaiah's "son," played by actor Keith Powers.

Muse rounded up several of the players who contributed to that first 30-second commercial sensation and asked them to give us a peek behind the towel, as it were. Conversations were edited and condensed, and include insights, anecdotes and behind-the-scenes revelations from:

• Craig Allen and Eric Kallman, who now head creative companies Callen and Erich & Kallman, respectively
• Tom Kuntz, still an A-list commercial director at MJZ
• Jason Bagley, a W+K creative director in 2010 who now serves as executive creative director
• Britton Taylor, a W+K group strategy director then and now
• Matt Krehbiel, associate brand director at Old Spice, who worked as an assistant brand manager 10 years ago

Writing the commercial, Kallman and Allen unexpectedly found themselves in radio-script mode.

Craig Allen: We would lock ourselves in a room and sit in silence until we had an idea. I remember that I had the beginning, and said it out loud, and Eric laughed. Then we kept working on it until we thought we had something.

Eric Kallman: We only had about two days to write it, because P&G had gotten this [Super Bowl] air time at the last minute. Craig and I had written a bunch of ads up to that point for Old Spice, and it was always with a handsome male spokesman talking to the camera, to guys—and it had always been for deodorant. This was the first one for body wash, and almost all body washes are purchased by the wife or girlfriend of the man. So, we were going to write a script that spoke to women. The first words Craig typed were, "Hello ladies," and we hashed it out from there. It was almost like a radio script. We had the dialogue figured out, and we loved it. 

Of course, the commercial moves from a bathroom to a boat and, finally, a horse.

Kallman: We started in a bathroom because it made the most sense. We thought it would be a cool transition to get him from there to a boat. We didn't have an ending, a last line. One of the other scripts from the same assignment—which wasn't as good, it was looney—had the spokesman saying: "I'm a man. I'm awesome. I'm strong," and at the end he said, "I'm a horse." We took it from that script and tossed it on to the end of the one we used: "I'm on a horse." 

W+K loved the concept, and offered a suggestion for the visuals.

Jason Bagley: Craig and Eric came in to present to me and [creative director] Eric Baldwin, and because they hadn't been given much time on it, they weren't sure they nailed it. They presented a few scripts and then said they had a last one they liked but couldn't figure out the visuals, so they thought it might just be a radio spot. They read the script and we instantly loved it, and suggested the visuals could just be the things the spokesman is talking about. Normally that would be too see-and-say, but the script was so original and packed with dialogue that we thought it could work. The only thing the script was lacking was a great ending, so at the next check-in, they came back with "I'm on a horse," and the rest is history.  

Allen: The whole process was super-quick. I'm convinced that's why it turned out well. Not enough time for anyone to screw it up.

P&G initially passed on the spot, choosing an entirely different commercial, but W+K still believed the shower, boat and horse smelled like victory.

Allen: It had a bear in a hot tub firing a rocket launcher. We sold that one, and we all kind of had this weird feeling about it…

Bagley: The client bought the other script because it sold the product better, and it wasn't until we walked out of the meeting that we realized we had to sell them "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like." So, we quickly tweaked the script to make it sell the product harder, and got the client on the phone the next day, and explained that we had sold them the wrong script, and that this thing was really special. They had already sold the other script all the way up to the top of P&G, and gotten everybody excited about it. To their credit, they went back through the ranks, unsold the other script, and sold the new one.

Isaiah Mustafa lucked out during callbacks, and his last-minute change of acting technique won the day.

Bagley: Almost every casting agency had closed for the holidays, so it was slim pickings. We knew the spot depended on finding a super charismatic, handsome, and yet funny character, or it wouldn't work. Just when we thought we weren't going to find the right talent, the casting company went back for one more round, and that's when Isaiah came in.

Kallman: We were having a hard time finding a fit, handsome guy to be the lead. Isaiah got called back from the original round just because of his appearance. At the callback, there was an actor in there—with me and Craig and the director, Tom Kuntz. Isaiah was sitting in a chair right outside that room, because he was going to come in next. The guy we had in there was not that good looking, and not really fit, but he was an Antonio Banderas type of guy who was really, really funny. He was kind of a goofball. We had him in there for the longest time. And Isaiah's sitting on deck waiting to go in. 

When Isaiah did the first audition … he wasn't bad, but he wasn't great. [In the interim] he thought up the voice he actually does in the spot—like a superhero character. He loved it, but he wasn't going to do it at the callback, because they always say to do what got you to the callback. But because he was waiting in the on-deck chair for so long, he thought this other guy for sure was going to get the job, so he decided, "All right, I'm just going to do it this new way." The first time he went through the script, he did it exactly like he does it in the spot, and we were like, "Thank God!" He did the whole deep voice, "Hello, ladies. Look at your man. Now back at me." It was perfect!

Director Tom Kuntz was no stranger to making oddball commercials with W+K, and he instinctively decided to shoot the spot in one take, with as little computer trickery as possible. 

Kallman: Craig and I did the Skittles ads [under creative directors Ian Reichenthal and Scott Vitrone], and Tom did those with us. We had done the CareerBuilder Super Bowl spot where the koala gets punched in the face … we were working heavily with Tom at that time.

Tom Kuntz: I had a joke that when they would send me scripts, they were basically just fucking with me, trying to send me "unfilmable" ideas. When I got this one, it took me a day, maybe less, to sketch out the notion of how to do it, which is what we ended up doing. I have always been fairly anti-CGI when it doesn't have to be used. With something like Old Spice and comedy, I knew that any inherent clunkiness would translate into charm, instead of cheating with CG and ending up with something too perfect and cold. 

Bagley: To make the character larger than life, everything he did needed to be like a magic trick, rather than artificial-looking CG. Part of that magic trick was that it had to all happen in one continuous take. That resulted in a huge domino-effect of things that could and did go wrong. If every single thing worked perfectly, but Isaiah tripped up on his last line, the whole take was ruined.

Shooting in a half-boat set on a nearly deserted Malibu beach, the crew required more than 30 arduous takes before everything jelled. And to top it off, the horse was a diva.

Kuntz: It was very hard to get every beat to happen. We had to keep trying and trying. And the weather was also shifting, and the lighting was killing us at points. 

Kallman: There was a device that Isaiah sat down on in the boat that then basically scooted him sideways onto the horse. That was an issue, because it was a real horse. We spooked the horse sometimes. There were a whole bunch of people waving carrots, trying to stop the horse from turning around the wrong way. Everybody screwed up a dozen different times.

Bagley: After our two-day shoot, we didn't have a single usable take, so we had to ask the client to pay for an additional shoot day. And with one hour of daylight remaining on that final extra day of shooting, we still didn't have a single usable take. We finally got the one usable take in the final 30 minutes.

Allen: It was more picking the one that had the fewest problems than it was finding one magic take.

At one point, Isaiah was nearly crushed in an accident.

Kuntz: The bathroom [walls] fell because the winch gave, and it almost killed Isaiah. But he didn't even flinch. It landed like one inch from him.

Kallman: It was dangling way up high and we were resetting. It fell, and I think it scraped the back of Isaiah's shoulder. That was a big, scary thing; it was so heavy, when it crashed onto the boat set, it did some damage to that, too.

Thankfully, the suave star survived, earning kudos for keeping his focus despite the pressure and craziness taking place.

Bagley: His focus and delivery while having to hit his marks, and pull off multiple stunts flawlessly, was unreal. It helped that he was a professional athlete.

Kallman: He was a superman. He just kept going.

Oh, they also shot a simpler :15 with Isaiah sitting backwards on the horse, which wouldn't stop moving its bowels.

Kallman: On that one, the horse is shitting as it walks—and we actually grabbed the back end of the horse from a different take and sewed it on there [combining two takes into one :15]. But in that take that you see, the horse is pooping the whole time. When we showed it [unedited] to the client, they laughed out loud at that. They didn't want to get rid of that. 

When the agency team first saw the finished :30 spot, they were pleased, but had no inkling it would become a game changer.

Kallman: We saw it with the editor a couple of days after the shoot. It was one take, so all of a sudden we're just drilling into the details, talking about the horizon line, the water … small little things that we wanted to see if we could tweak. When it was all done, we thought it was fine, but we didn't think it would be some great, amazing thing at all.

At first, P&G wanted to scrap the :30 commercial, but W+K fought to get it aired.

Kuntz: The client didn't like it at first. They told us it wasn't funny. And since we were so close to it, we didn't know if they were right.

Kallman: That's when the conversations higher up started happening, where the big-wigs at Wieden went back and forth with them. They wanted to pull the spot and not air it, and Wieden fought to just get aired. They pulled it from the Super Bowl, but Wieden fought and was able to get it to run right after.

Once the ad caught on, reaction came fast and furious.

Kallman: A couple of days after it was out, people came down from PR telling us, "Hey, you've got to get Craig in here, there's this website you need to go on, you're going to be interviewed." People were liking the commercial already, but I do remember that interview … seemed to make it a bigger deal. It was around the time of that interview it took off.

Britton Taylor: We weren't quite sure how it would be perceived by the public. When it finally ran, it was apparent pretty quickly that this thing had struck a chord. I remember when the spot first ran on Lost, I was glued to Twitter and couldn't keep up with the reactions. People were just transfixed and fascinated by this character. When you're getting unsolicited messages and calls from your friends from elementary school that you haven't talked to in 30 years, you know you've hit something big.

Matt Krehbiel: As a new marketer at P&G at the time, I remember the mayhem surrounding the campaign when it launched. P&G halls were buzzing, especially after Oprah saw the spot and declared she was rushing out to get Old Spice, then Ellen had Isaiah on, and then The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was literally everywhere. And the spoof videos of fans doing the "Hello ladies. Look at me, now look at your man, now back to me" bit was incredible. There was lots of spoofing going on at P&G, too. People were really excited and proud to be part of something so transformative—creatively, for the business and for the grooming category as a whole.  

And the rest, of course, is advertising history.

Kallman: Craig and I worked on Skittles, which was really different and weird. And then, everybody was trying to be weird. But this was next-level. I would say that this brought back spokesmen. I started in advertising in 2005, and the worst thing you could do was use a spokesman. That's a lame idea, right? Back then, it was more situational comedy—scenes that played out. Isaiah talking to the camera … was really distinctive at the time. It stood out. So, I think Isaiah made spokesmen talking to camera a huge thing over the next few years. It was everywhere!

Taylor: This campaign had a big impact on 2010s creativity. It led to a surge of self-awareness in advertising. For several years it seemed like every brand was trying to capture the same magic, debuting charismatic characters talking to the camera while doing unbelievable things. It rarely worked. I actually believe it was the "Response" campaign with Isaiah—where we shot 162 personalized videos over the course of two and a half days—that had the biggest impact. On the second day of that effort, we had eight of the top 11 videos on the internet. It was a true phenomenon that ushered in the era of brands harnessing the web to interact with consumers in real time. This seems commonplace today, but I believe this was a turning point.

Krehbiel: From countless "spoofs" and tribute videos to being part of "best of" advertising case studies around the world, affinity for this spot has transcended the test of time. 

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David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is senior editor at Clio Awards.

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