I am sitting atop one of a line of horses in rural Colorado, surrounded by mountains and scrubland and vast blue sky. I am wearing blue jeans and boots and a vaguely Western-looking shirt and a leather cowboy hat provided to me by the men’s fragrance line that lured me out here, a brand that associates itself with the sort of unalloyed manliness that this scene has been purposefully constructed to reinforce.
Except here is the thing: My horse is named Wimpy, and Wimpy is loping lazily along this trail, and my posterior is already beginning to seize up in a spiral of tightness that will plague me for the next three days, and the horse in front of me is expelling a prodigious stream of gas that makes this whole scene feel a hell of a lot more Blazing Saddles than Hang ’Em High.
The other thing is, I am not the kind of man who rides horses, and I am not the kind of man who wears cowboy hats, unless I happen to be wildly intoxicated and attending a folk-music festival. I am not the kind of man who does these sorts of things for many reasons, but mostly I don’t do these things because I dwell in a famously liberal West Coast city that has not yet adopted a horse-sharing program.
The horse in front of me is expelling a prodigious stream of gas that makes this whole scene feel a hell of a lot more Blazing Saddles than Hang ’Em High.
But I am here, as a man nearing the midpoint of the normal American male lifespan—a man whose confidence in his own masculinity has, like everyone else’s, had its ups and downs over the years—to learn more about how manliness is defined in the modern age, or at the very least to understand how manliness is defined by the public-relations and marketing team at Old Spice, which has flown me and several other bloggers and journalists here to promote its new ad campaign, the tagline of which is (seriously) “Smell ’Em Who’s Boss.”
A confession: I do not wear Old Spice. I wear a woodsy-scented all-natural deodorant I purchase at Whole Foods (because I live in said liberal West Coast city, where worry about chemicals seeping into one’s armpit glands is pervasive), and when I am going out, I wear a cologne that costs far too much money and may or may not make any difference to the ladies. My dad did wear Old Spice, though, had those fragrant white bottles on his nightstand when I was a kid, but then, everyone’s dad and grandfather wore Old Spice, to the point that Old Spice utilizes this fact in their marketing presentations (“If your grandfather hadn’t worn Old Spice, you wouldn’t exist”).
But these days, Old Spice is targeting a far younger demographic, the AXE body spray demographic (AXE, in fact, is Old Spice’s biggest scent rival); these days, most of Old Spice’s marketing surveys are directed at either 18-to-24-year-olds or 18-to-35-year-olds, the type of young men who were attracted by the irony of Old Spice’s string of absurdist advertising campaigns, which broke through to the mainstream several years ago when a very handsome actor proclaimed, in utterly non-sequiturian fashion, “I’m on a horse.”
In fact, I am in possession of a cardboard sign in Wimpy’s saddlebag, given to me by the Old Spice people, that reads, “I’m on a Horse.” The idea was that this would be part of a group photo-op, but I have not actually removed this sign from my saddlebag since actually clambering onto Wimpy, because the wrangler who put me on this horse did not think it a solid idea for a bunch of amateur riders to hold onto the reins with one hand for even a minute.
And I will not lie—I am clinging to Wimpy’s reins pretty goddamned tightly, because this is literally the second time I have sat on a horse in my life, and because Wimpy has decided to continually nip at the flatulent rear end of the horse in front of me whenever that horse slows up traffic to nudge at a piece of scrub grass. It turns out that Wimpy is an ornery son of a bitch with the demeanor of a New York City cabdriver, and it turns out that Wimpy is far more complex and manipulative than his nickname would let on, and it turns out that the modern notion of manhood—and how that notion is transmitted to consumers of deodorant and body wash and other scented products—is actually far more complex and manipulative than I would have imagined, as well.
Inside a well-appointed “hay barn” on a dude ranch known as the C Lazy U, which has been entertaining aspirational cowboy fantasies harbored by urban folk like me for nearly a century, I am watching a young marketing executive for Old Spice work his way through a PowerPoint presentation billed as a #SmellEm Behind-the-Scenes Session. Old Spice is both “The Manliest Scent on the Planet” and the “Symbol of Idealized Masculinity,” I am told as I eye up a basket of mini-muffins on the far side of the room. All of this is about idealization and aspiration; all of this is designed to make young men feel more like themselves than they otherwise would.
The focus of this presentation is on Old Spice’s “Red Zone” collection, and a pair of “scent characters” that are available in both deodorant and body-spray formats. One, known as “Swagger,” is Old Spice’s most popular scent, and is larded with notes of citrus and rosemary and cedar that make it smell a little bit like a slightly more grown-up version of what one might wear to a fraternity formal. The tagline for Swagger is “The Scent of Confidence,” which is what this whole presentation comes back to: That scent is the gateway to confidence, particularly in young men who are otherwise confused about their place in the world. “When (men are) young,” reads another PowerPoint slide, “life is awkward, hard and filled with uncomfortable stuff…as they get older, things don’t get easier or better.”
Every time I look at Alberto, I vacillate between the notion that Alberto is here to remind me of the man I aspire to be, and the notion that Alberto is here to remind me of the man I’ll never actually be.
The idea, I am told, is that men feel like they have no control, and that Old Spice provides them with that control. The idea is that scent is confidence, and that this confidence will transform an ordinary dude into, say, James Bond. That’s why we’re here, in this barn, surrounded by horses and bite-sized breakfast foods, because this central notion of “confidence” led Old Spice’s marketing team to realize that no one is more confident than a movie character, and therefore they decided to launch a new scent called “Desperado”—which carries notes of citrus and woodsiness and green things with maybe a hint of a Hostess fruit pie in there somewhere—by creating an advertising campaign with movie-level production. And the first of those ads was filmed in Mexico, on a farm once owned by John Wayne, and features a dude sitting in a bathtub that happens to be situated atop a horse.
There are some men who can simply exist as men without exerting much effort. I am not like this at all, but Alberto is like this. Alberto is an actor and a model, and he is here with us this week to pose for Instagram and Snapchat photo-ops and to generally look like the handsome desperado he plays in that Old Spice ad. Alberto is a beautiful man, and I say that without a trace of self-consciousness; he has a large square jaw and a near-perfect beard that I assume he was born with, and he has large and shiny teeth and he is disarmingly friendly. Somehow, he has snagged the hippest cowboy hat of all of us, but even if he hadn’t, he would look good with or without headgear of any kind, because his hair is also a fantastic mass of dark curls.
Anyway, you get the idea. There is a reason Alberto was chosen to star in these commercials, and it is because he resembles, in a certain way, a young Antonio Banderas, the star of the movie Desperado, a ridiculous Robert Rodriguez film that we re-watched on the bus on the way from the airport. This commercial, I am told, is a story about a man who “smells like pure unadulterated confidence,” which sounds ridiculous until you meet someone like Alberto, who makes everything in life seem effortless, and who never appears to lose control of anything. Every time I look at him over the course of these three days, I vacillate between the notion that Alberto is here to remind me of the man I aspire to be, and the notion that Alberto is here to remind me of the man I’ll never actually be, no matter how many scents I slather myself in.
Still, I keep trying, for this is the kind of place where one cannot help but aspire toward manliness. There is very good bourbon in stock here, which helps, and there is stunning scenery straight out of a John Ford film, but there are also things you can do on a dude ranch like this one that you cannot do during your vinyasa yoga class, and one of those things you can do is fire a 12-gauge rifle at a small biodegradable target. This is known as trap shooting, and it is both incredibly loud and incredibly empowering, even when, like me, you come nowhere near hitting any of the targets. That same day, I learn to cast a fly-fishing rod, and I use a compound bow to shoot several arrows nowhere near a target, and I hurl a series of small hatchets at a pile of logs in an attempt to make them stick. This last thing is known as a “woodsman’s game,” and while I am hurling these sharp objects, one of the employees of the ranch tells me a story about a nearby wildfire that appeared to have been set by a couple of idiots wildly firing assault rifles at a shooting range.
According to a company survey, 83 percent of men wear some sort of scent to boost their confidence.
That, I’m thinking, is the kind of hardcore stupidity that men engage in when idealized manliness grows wildly out of control. Maybe men who do something that idiotic are the ones who lack confidence; maybe they’re the ones Old Spice is targeting in this ad campaign, and with “scent characters” like Swagger and Desperado, and with spokesmodels like Alberto. According to a company survey, 83 percent of men wear some sort of scent to boost their confidence, and more than half said smelling bad on a date is worse than getting locked out of their house naked, and 92 percent said that other people treat them better when they smell good.
Anyway, this is the kind of stuff I find myself thinking about when I’m on that trail, riding a horse named Wimpy: Can confidence be contrived merely through a scent? Or does it stem from something deeper, something that Alberto has, something that a few days on a dude ranch might be able to smooth over but that actually has to be born from within? Either way, here I am, on a horse, pondering philosophical questions about the awkwardness and uncomfortability of growing older. I have no idea if these three days have made my life any easier, or any better, but I did not shoot myself in the eye with that gun, and I did not fall off Wimpy, and I did not bludgeon anyone with a hatchet, and I am returning to my city with enough body spray to cover up whatever scent of fear remains with me from day to day. Maybe it’s not the real thing, but maybe it’s good enough for now.
Michael Weinreb is the author of four books, including Game of Kings, which was named one of the best books of the year by Amazon. For more, go here.
Photos: Old Spice/@joesdaily