I'm On a World Serpent

I’m On a World Serpent

Old Spice has made the commercial that will destroy America.

Conventional wisdom has it that “word of mouth is the best form of marketing.” This is kind of like saying water is the best way of hydrating the human body: it’s obvious until someone starts getting paid to make alternatives. You might reverse it and say marketing is a crappy way of imitating word of mouth. And it is. Celebrity spokesmodels, touting buzzwords as virtues, are cheap imitations of the recommendation of a friend.

If Clay Shirky were talking about marketing instead of picking up kids at daycare, he’d say that marketing isn’t as good as word of mouth because marketing slaps a price structure on top of what was once a generous exchange of information. Marketers imitate friendship. But because friendship’s rather precious, they have to pay someone – a publisher – for the privilege. The publisher has to, in turn, find a way to get the marketer’s message to as many viewers as possible. This is a slow and inefficient process.

Until commercials go viral.

Suddenly, the multi-billion dollar marketing industry (creative, powerful) is now hitched onto the process of word of mouth (friendly, trustworthy). What’s more, it’s accelerated by the speed of the global fiber-optic communications network (fast, reliable). It’s like the dead are besieging Asgard in Thor’s magic chariot, as opposed to a ship made out of fingernails (ick).

The three most powerful forces in the world – marketing, community and the Internet – have joined forces to make sure you know what Isaiah Mustafah smells like.



Why is this so dire? Because there’s no going back from it. Every producer of consumer packaged goods, the next time they sit down to renew their ad agency contract, is going to say, “We want to make a really cool video. One that’ll go viral. You know, like that Old Spice ad.” And since ad agencies justify their budgets by beating their competitors, they’ll have to come up with something even more eye-catching to top Old Spice.

How do you come up with something more entertaining and shareable than Isaiah Mustafah? I have no clue. I couldn’t have conceived of such a commercial in the first place. But I can’t stop watching it. That weird blend of charisma, absurdity and ironic earnestness have lodged in just the right corner of my brain. And 14 million YouTube users agree with me.

In less than ten years, commercials will be nonsense slurs of random images, non sequitur dialogue and explosions. Marketers will spam the Internet with thousands of ads in a day, hoping that one will go viral and validate their budget for the fiscal year. Trunk lines will groan with the effort of funneling videos of arm-wrestling pandas selling Pringles, plush UFOs with googly eyes touting Old Navy and the inimitable Geico Gecko.

And the World Serpent will uncoil its tail, Fenrir will break free from its subterranean prison, and the Fimbulwinter will begin.


24 Comments on “I’m On a World Serpent”

  1. Ray C #

    LOLcats are nowhere near the bottom of the pits that are the internet.


  2. mlawski OTI Staff #

    If Mustafa ever fought the Most Interesting Man in the World, that probably would mean Armaggeddon. Could the Universe possibly take such stress and awesomeness? I doubt it.


  3. Sylvia #

    “Now I’m on the World Serpent.”



  4. cat #

    In a way, I think you’re right…but word of mouth isn’t a type of social contract or unspoken agreement, and marketing doesn’t cause it to break down. We might fall prey to advertising but that doesn’t mean we won’t return to that base line and respond favorably to good word of mouth. Also, nothing is created by word of mouth. Sure, it’s a possible use of one’s time but it doesn’t produce anything and doesn’t contribute to a communal information database/cloud/storage space. Viral videos that get passed around don’t imitate word of mouth but utilize it.



  5. John Perich OTI Staff #

    @Cat: I think you and I are agreeing rather than disagreeing. Viral videos (created by marketers) hosted on the Internet (fiber-optic technology) are being promoted through word of mouth (an essential part of the social contract).


  6. Chris #

    I’ve never seen one of these Old Spice commercials in their entirety, because I do everything within my power to avoid advertisements (though, of course, I can’t avoid them entirely because we all find ourselves slowly suffocating on them in an existential sense) but I know enough about them to hate them. Commercials for years mostly have been nothing more than a sort of slight of hand magic trick, where they try and sell you something else in hopes it will get you to buy the product and I just find that so repulsive.

    Fortunately, I don’t know if this commercial is going to really lower the discourse of advertising, mostly because I don’t feel the discourse could be any lower. The Simpsons legend George Meyer in the thoroughly excellent book on comedy writing And Here’s the Kicker has two tremendous quotes on advertising:

    He calls advertising “an insane, diabolical siren song dragging us all to a horrific Koyaanisqatsi.” For the record, Koyaanisqatsi, according to Wikipedia, is a Hopi word meaning “crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living” So, while it’s not quite Ragnorak with the wolf Fenrir and Tyr the Norse God of War and Loki and all those dudes, he certainly has a feeling in the same vein.

    Also “advertising is a conscienceless industry, populated by cowards and idiots, that warps and drains everyone. It eggs on the worst in all of us. If I could eliminate either advertising or nuclear weapons, I would choose advertising.”

    So, I guess I really didn’t add much to this discussion other than the state of advertising in the world today is hideous and I hate it, but it is just one of the things in this world that really sets me off, probably because we are just so inundated with it. It’s an unwieldy behemoth threatening to destroy us all.


  7. rtpoe #

    The most insidious part about “viral marketing” is that the advertisers have persuaded us to do their job for them. And without pay! There’s nothing wrong with word of mouth, but does McDonalds or Mountain Dew really need us shilling for them?

    Our “mediaspace” has gotten so crowded that marketers either have to shout louder and louder or find some new way of invading our consciousness. They’ll do whatever it takes, and we’re playing right along.


  8. Brooks #

    It’s just “Wallace” not “Foster Wallace”


  9. richies^ghost #

    4chan’s /b/ and its anonymous community have been paralleled with Loki:


    “The 4Chan hivemind is essentially the modern day equivalent of the trickster Loki. Everything it does is simply for its own amusement and delights in the tears that are shed over its pranks, but at the same time it can’t ever be reasoned with or controlled.”

    This article and that statement have an interesting synchonicity. Considering that so many viral videos and assorted meme’s orginate with 4chan or gain a strong mommentum there, the control of such a forum would be an advertisers wet dream. One thing we can be sure of is that the consequences will never be the same.


  10. John Perich OTI Staff #

    @Brooks: people who go by three names (esp. writers) tend to be identified by the last two. e.g. Conan Doyle, Scott Fitzgerald, etc.

    @Richies: that’s also a good metaphor! It works in that neither /b/ nor Loki are expressly malicious – they help and hurt in equal measure. Until Ragnarok, that is.

    (And we talked a little about whether or not addressing 4chan was necessary for modern social media mavericks in a recent podcast!)


  11. John Perich OTI Staff #

    @Brooks: actually, I’m being an ass – “Conan Doyle” and “Scott Fitzgerald” are compound surnames, whereas “Foster” is David Foster Wallace’s middle name. Oops.


    • fenzel #

      If you consider Ragnarok as the planet on which most of Battletoads takes place, it becomes even more resonant! :-)


      • richies^ghost #

        Either is better than the literal, nuclear holocaust and winter that it can be interpreted as.

        Ddoes that big ole snake seem like a primite way of describing trans-oceanic fibre optic cabels to anyone else?


  12. cat #

    I suppose I find this ad less bothersome than everyone else because I think that something of value is being created. It’s more lolcats than Ushahidi but it serves a purpose. People circulate it because it brings them enjoyment and they want to share that with others.

    The character is a fascinating one. He claims that he as the Old Spice icon is living in a parallel universe to the one where the actor playing the icon is, but can also make a video addressing the actor and telling him to continue making videos. The character reinforces stereotypes of men and women. Men are the ones who go out and do things. Women are the ones who are passive, have things done to them, need to be protected, and prefer that passive role. He also seems to admit that finding that female romantic ideal of perfection is impossible. He is constrained by the stereotypes society imposes. While able to achieve much within the bounds of “masculine behavior”, he can’t sing Happy Birthday because it “could quite possibly be seen as feminine by men”. He seems to accept death as long as he passes with a glorious mourning (which I’ve always found odd since the deceased wouldn’t be aware of how they were being mourned) yet then goes on to describe how he would will himself not to die and thus prevent it. He tells his audience he loves them in the way many stars do but still occasionally mocks them.


  13. Gab #

    After reading this, I find the phrase “viral marketing” problematic in other contexts if compared to something like Old Spice Guy. I’m thinking mainly of ad campaigns for movies that leave clues for interested parties to look for something in or watch for suchandsuch an event to occur or what-have-you, like the _Dark Knight_ egg hunts around the country or its online “newspapers” (with two versions, the “original,” and one corrupted by the Joker) and political campaigns for Gotham City D.A.- stuff like that results in *more* than just talking about it with someone else and possibly watching it, but active participation within the advertisement itself (you read the “paper” and wave the mouse over the right part and hope something special will happen if you click; you get in your car and drive somewhere; you answer the fake poll on the fake campaign website). The people being advertised to have impetus in the way the ad itself functions- if they don’t click the right part, the hidden picture never appears; if they don’t drive to the diner at midnight, nobody ever finds the clue; etc. It’s viral, but a scary mutation, a totally different strain that operates on a far more manipulative level. I don’t know what to call ad campaigns that are *so* participatory- zombie virus ad campaigns, maybe?


  14. DaveMc #

    Until recently, I would have thought, with bright-eyed, fuzzy-minded optimism, that the mechanisms of actual friendship, and the associated word-of-mouth recommendations, could not be subverted artificially. I’d have guessed that despite advertisers’ best efforts, one’s friends would still filter out the noise and only send along things they genuinely thought you would like.

    But recently, I started noodling around on Facebook, where I learned that people will click on any damn thing and forward it to everyone they know, if it will give them a new doohickey for their virtual farm (or city, or Mafia empire). So the Ragnarok we face, for me, is one where apparently personal recommendations from alleged friends mean nothing, or are swamped by the deluge of not-really-recommendations.

    I’m basically done with Facebook, at this point. Email seems more direct, faster, and importantly, less filled with requests to help people’s virtual farms.


  15. Roxanne #

    Baldur’s mother is Frigg, not Freya.


    • DaveMc #

      You forgot the obligatory “Well, actually …” :)


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      … damn it, you’re right. That’s two names I’ve got wrong in this article. Three if it turns out “Shirky” is a nom de plume, which I suspect it is.


  16. Josh #

    Hey John-first time reader, first time poster, but I’d like to point out that the dire future you portend may not be as imminent as you think: http://www.reelseo.com/24551/
    Old Spice’s sales are down. Assuming they stay that way, other marketers will feel no incentive to imitate their highly-successful-but-ironically-unsuccessful viral campaign.


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