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No, seriously: What the Old Spice ads can teach us about news’ future

BrandFlakesforBreakfast might have put it best: “…If you live in a cave, you need to be aware of the fact that Old Spice owned the internet yesterday.”

Indeed. How the brand did that owning is fascinating (and, if you haven’t seen it already, ReadWriteWeb’s detailed description of that process is well worth the read); essentially, Old Spice’s ad agency spent an entire day curating the real-time web, writing and producing videos based on that curation, and posting them to YouTube — where, again, the real-time web could do its thing. It was, as Josh pointed out, the advertising world’s answer to the Demand Media model of content creation: research, churn, lather, rinse, repeat.

And — here’s where Old Spice parts ways with Demand Media — pretty much everyone seems to love it. (As one web metrics firm noted, “We took a look at some of the most explosive viral videos we’ve measured, including Bush dodging Iraqi shoes, Obama giving his electoral victory speech, and Susan Boyle, and found that in the first 24 hours, Old Spice Responses outpaces all of them.”) It’s a popularity, notably, that seems to bridge the culture. The Atlantic wondered whether the campaign augurs the future of online video, while Reddit posted an open letter declaring, “Ok, you won us all over Mr. Old Spice Man. On reddit…our demographic is notoriously difficult to crack. And hell, you cracked it well, on our home turf which we patrol carefully, and we liked it.” Online denizens from Alyssa “big on Twitter” Milano to 4chan — yes, that 4chan — have also apparently hopped onto Mr. Old Spice Man’s noble steed.

So (putting aside the fact that we now live in a world where the members of 4chan and Alyssa Milano have only one degree of separation between them, and thus that End Times approach) we have to wonder: What might the Internet-owning power of the towel-clad spokesman hint about, yes, the future of news?

There’s the obvious, of course: the fact that the ads are personalized. That their content is created for, and curated from, the conversational tumult of the web — “audience engagement,” personified. Literally. The videos are, in that sense, a direct assault on top-down, author’s-artistic-vision-driven, mass media broadcast sensibilities.

But they’re an assault on mass media in another way, as well. The real hook of the videos isn’t the OSM’s awesomely burly baritone, or the whimsy of his monologues (the scepter! the bubbles! the fish!), or the postfeminist irony of his Rugged Manliness, or any of that. It’s the fact that we’re seeing all those things play out dynamically, serially, in (semi-)real-time. And: in video. Video that, though laughable in production quality when compared to most of its made-for-TV counterparts, is literally laughable in a way that most of those counterparts simply are not. The ads are weird and wonderful and hilarious. And the made-for-YouTube gag is part of the joke; the poor production value, relatively speaking, is part of the point.

In other words: The process of the videos, here, matters as much as the product. (Sound familiar?)

So, then, here’s the news angle. We often, in our focus on content (the news itself) and context (the newsgathering project, engagement with users, etc.), forget the more superficial side of things: the presentation framework of news content as its own component of journalism’s trajectory. The question of production value — essentially, to what extent do consumers care about high-quality production in the presentation of their news? — is still very much an open one in online journalism, and one that probably doesn’t get enough attention when we think about what the news will become as we adapt it to the digital world. That’s particularly so for video. Any given MediaStorm video, say, with its expertise and artistry, is likely going to be superior, aesthetically, to any given YouTube video. The question, though, is how much better. And whether, for cash- and time- and staff- and generally resource-strapped news organizations, the value added by finesse justifies the investment in it.

The Old Spice videos are a particularly instructive case, since, for journalistic purposes, they essentially lack content; they’re marketing messages, not news. Measured against the high-production-value ads on TV, they allow for a nice little side-by-side comparison of audience reception. And judging by the campaign’s expansive popularity, audiences not only don’t seem to mind that the ads are relatively low in quality; they actually seem to like that they are. The straight-to-YouTube thing is not just a means to virality, or an implied little irony; it’s also part of a broader shift: low(-ish) production value as a ratification of, rather than a threat to, the content in contains. When it comes to news video, slickness can be a drawback; in an increasingly UGC-driven world, it’s video that’s grainy (and bumpy, and poorly framed, and generally amateurish) that tends to imply authenticity. As we move, in our news, from vertical structures to horizontal, our expectations about images themselves are moving along with us.

Does that mean that news organizations should abandon high-quality video production, if they’re already engaged in it? Or that their sites should eschew lush data visualizations or artistic photography? No, certainly not. But it does mean that we should be cognizant of production value as an independent factor in journalism — one that can and should be open to moderation and experimentation, either for better or, when warranted, worse. Quality content tends to speak for itself; the Old Spice ads, with their churned-out, on-the-fly, Flipcam-y feeling, are reminders that consumers recognize that better than anyone. Not all journalism needs to be slick or sharp or beautiful; some of it might actually benefit from a little messiness. And from, yes, a little spice.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Brian
  • Kristen Taylor

    I have to respectfully disagree with part of the argument here–the Old Spice videos on YouTube are far from Flip Cam quality.

    I have produced dozens of casual videos in a professional context in the past five years, and while I would say, yes, grainy, rough video is important to the future of news and deserves a place in the gathered media collection of a story, the slick, quick, achingly handsome OSM videos aren’t that example–

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  • Suzanne Yada

    I also completely disagree. This is not low-quality. 1) It’s in HD, and 2) there’s a tripod involved. It is slick, and that’s the reason it works.

    This isn’t Flipcam-level stuff, and I think the real reason why it won over the web was because there was a professional-level TV crossover. The internet is now being acknowledged, and in its own sense of humor, by a –yes, slick — campaign.

    I think you’re mistaking low quality for simplicity.

  • Megan Garber

    That’s a good point, Kristen, thanks. When I wrote “Flipcam-y feeling,” above, that was a bit…well, flip. I didn’t mean that the videos look like they were shot on portable cameras (the video quality itself is actually quite good); I was talking about the overall aesthetic of the videos: the single actor, the simple set, the recycled props, etc., etc. The ads feel more like home videos, friendly and frank, than slick, highly edited, mass-media affairs. And that’s a big part of their charm.

  • Megan Garber

    Thanks, Suzanne. See my comment to Kristen, above.

    You’re right, when I wrote about “low-quality” production values, I was focusing on simplicity: I was talking about the overall sparseness and, yes, simplicity of the production. I wasn’t talking about the video equipment itself; I was addressing the comprehensive scale of the production effort, which allowed the ads’ creators to produce their videos nimbly and, above all, quickly.

  • Mac Slocum

    The run-and-gun style of the videos is certainly notable, but let’s not forget that these clips are also entertaining as hell. The guy’s delivery is fantastic (so much so, he landed a talent deal with NBC:

    How is that relevant to the news business? It all comes down to value: Was I informed? Was I entertained? Did this content *justify its existence in my world*? Had these clips employed the same production value without the humor, no one would be talking about them.

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  • Karl Pearson-Cater

    Tough call to tell if their efforts teach us anything about the future of news. I think is doing a lot of great things with ‘live response’ coverage. And I’d love to see an experiment where they get the same kind of budget Old Spice got to cover an event. I think it would be quite good.

  • Carl LaFong

    You guys seem to be oblivious to the fact that most of the “views” the American public has been exposed to of the Old Spice Guy have come from television. And by “most,” I mean over 90%.

    TV is what’s really driving the campaign and subsequent views on the internet.If these ads weren’t on TV to begin with, we wouldn’t be talking about this dude.

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  • Tracy @ WSB

    Awesome point. We know this to be true. Real time info/interaction rules. Don’t worry about polish as long as it’s genuine, accurate, and hopefully non-harmful. People who think online video means replicating oldschool TV “packages” are wasting time and cheating ‘audience’ out of the chance to experience something real. Cheers!

  • Michael Galimanis

    So you realy thinkin the televisin viewer dont care about qua lit and for the most part is willin to except whatever video journalest put out their? So them the same must bee true for pint stories, web storys, and reader comments, Old Spice has nothing in common with a mother begging a community to help find her missing son, or eleven men losing their lives because a corporation recklessness. Thoses Old Spice ads that brougt your attention to Old Spice in the first place were not poorly produced using a flip cam. They were produced by one of the most talented and expensive Ad Agencies in the world. I would not be surprised if the Old Spice production and advertising budget is more then the annually budget of many television news rooms. Yes I absolutey agree that television news should not always be slick and will produced, but unfortunatey there are some who believe that it should be the new standard simply because there are viewers who have been watching a lot of You Tube. If thatt true than sadly thses people belive the public arent never going to notice poor quallity journalism no place.

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  • Plan

    This is retardism. Your great revelation is content doesn’t matter, and immediacy does?

    Then why doesn’t every news org fire all its staff, hire that Shane tool from Youtube, and give us all what Megan Garber says we really want — empty videos that “play out in real time”!

    Oh yes, Megan, Old Spice has taught us all a valuable lesson about “the future of news.” No one will ever read a police blotter or a solidly-crafted enterprise piece again, as long as they have a steady stream of new content from Isaiah Mustafa.

    This is the kind of stupidity we get from supposedly high-minded journalism institutes now? I suppose it’s only natural when you hire people who go directly from school to media criticism without actually doing any journalism in between.

    The 4chan name-dropping is also hilarious. The Anonymous of 4chan have an attention span of about a day. Let’s all take our journalism cues from a series of web shorts for a deodorant company, because the web’s foremost troll community was amused by those shorts for a few hours.

    Maybe by 10 p.m., when 4chan moves onto the next meme, the Washington Post can revolutionize news with a series of 15-second Youtube shorts about Line Trap, Brian Peppers and Goatse.

    I’ve gotta run — I’m gonna call the sports department of my local newspaper and tell them readers want grainy cell phone camera video of the Yankee-Tampa game shot from the mezzanine section, and not informed analysis from their 15-year beat writer.

    By the time that dinosauric beat reporter files his story 35 minutes after the game ends, I’ll already be distracted by videos of a 19-year-old girl from California lip-syncing to Owl City songs. Because, OMG they’re immediate, which = THE FUTURE OF NEWS.

    BTW, if anyone from Gannett, NYT Co. or McClatchy reads this, you should immediately fire your executives and replace them with Megan Garber, who has identified THE FUTURE OF NEWS and can help you move into the 21st century by giving readers what they’ve been begging for — viral parodies of the Dos Equis commercials. GO GO GO!

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  • Tom Foremski

    How much media is too much media? 87 videos in one day. What if every brand in your bathroom did that? What if every brand in your home did that? We have a media tsunami coming our way. And the only way to stay relevant is to produce more media. If 87 videos in one day is a norm then the winners will be the ones with 187… How will we communicate the really important stuff?

  • John Zimmer

    Great post, Megan. I think that these commercials and YouTube videos will be remembered in years to come as a threshold in commercial advertising. Interestingly, it appears that although people love the ads, sales of Old Spice are down in 2010. But it is still early days on that count.

    In any event, should Old Spice decide to drop Isaiah Mustafa, he could still have a great career teaching public speaking and presentation skills. Check out: Public Speaking Lessons from the Old Spice Guy.

  • Rose Roll

    It’s great that your post is making the argument that news organizations can learn valuable lessons from the Old Spice Man campaign. However, I don’t agree that the most important takeaway is that low-quality video production is the key to the campaign’s success. Instead, I think you hit the nail on the head with your assertion that “their content is created for, and curated from, the conversational tumult of the web — “audience engagement,” personified….The videos are, in that sense, a direct assault on top-down, author’s-artistic-vision-driven, mass media broadcast sensibilities.”

    The old model of news – where people were “told” the news they needed to know in a one-way dialogue – is dead. The Old Spice videos are a great example of how to engage your audience in a two-way dialogue, and that’s why they’ve gone viral.

  • Kirk Cheyfitz

    I really think the point you are trying to make is better illustrated by actual, poorly focused, grainy flip-cam footage from Iran, for example, promoted on Twitter and seen throughout the world. Old Spice was a well staged media event that tells us nothing of real value about the future of anything.

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