The Belgian surrealist René Magritte, who painted many pictures of men in suits, was thirteen years old in March of 1912 when his mother drowned herself in the River Sambre. Legend says that young René was there to see her as she was removed, her face covered by her sopping skirts, and that this experience prefigured his later paintings, such as Les Amants [“The Lovers”], which show human heads shrouded in white cloth. The truth of this account has been debunked in recent history, but the shroud paintings, like most of Magritte’s works, remain as unsettling and odd as they are visually witty.
Without deprecating his own work, Magritte was dismissive of its more serious interpretations. “When one sees one of my pictures,” he wrote, “one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does it mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”
If Magritte’s disclaimer seems to carry a whiff of denial, it’s at least partly because the links between art and dreams, and between dreams and the unconscious, were fundamental to the surrealist aesthetic, laid out by André Breton in his 1924 manifesto and owing much to the dream theory of Sigmund Freud. As science catches up with psychology, many of Freud’s theories have been debunked, but one that has recently gotten some validation is the idea that our suppressed thoughts and feelings run rampant during dream sleep, when the mechanism for suppressing them is temporarily shut down.
A new Old Spice commercial, “Five Year Plan,” which channels Magritte in a fantasy of corporate table turning, is mildly unsettling, mildly odd, and mildly witty. Its overall mildness makes it (to this writer) not nearly as creepy or effective as it might have been. (If you doubt the potential power of the unsettling/odd/witty mix, see this Axe spot from last year.)
Old Spice has been channeling the surrealists for years now in order to sell deodorants and body washes to men (and the women who want men to smell good). “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” the original salvo in Old Spice’s epic rebranding from W+K Portland, first aired in 2010 and has over 53 million YouTube views, many millions of those coming since the ad’s retirement. “Five Year Plan”—part of a new “Smell ‘Em Who’s Boss” campaign—was posted to YouTube just a month ago and already has over 8 million views.
As we contemplate the potential power of smelling awesome, it’s worth noting that we humans haven’t always been so concerned about how badly we smell. Sure, that could be because the world around us used to be even smellier. But we were also much more accepting of our own smells.
The first deodorants and antiperspirants were marketed over a hundred years ago–primarily to women, who had to first be convinced that they even needed them. In 1919, a copywriter named James Young, employed by the J. Walter Thompson agency, figured out how to boost sales of a leading antiperspirant, Odorono, by presenting body odor as a feminine ailment that was likely unknown only to the sufferer: “Even though there is no active perspiration–no apparent moisture—there may be under the arms an odor unnoticed by ourselves, but distinctly noticeable to others.” Competing products were quick to take up the tactic: “Men do talk about girls behind their backs,” reads the opening of an ad for Mum deodorant.
The men’s market for antiperspirants, meanwhile, leaned on more masculine insecurities, like fear of being passed over for a promotion. They also promoted the deodorants themselves as being inherently masculine. Sea-Forth, a deodorant from the 1940s, was sold in ceramic whiskey jugs. Old Spice, originally a shaving and aftershave line in the 1930s, traded on the glories of American nautical power. So there’s a long tradition in advertising connecting images of success—sexual, economic, even political—with perspiration and odor control.
Breton and his gang linked their creations with Marxist theory, so to suggest that the surrealists would have applauded all of this would be a stretch. In “Five Year Plan,” the men filling the suits may change places; the power structure remains the same.
It’s easy to complain that advertisers make us want deodorants we don’t need. But it’s harder to admit what that says about us as a species: We are smelly, self-centered apes in uncomfortable clothes, just looking for that magic potion that will make us feel better about ourselves.
And though art may not be much help in providing meaning, wearing the right suit can at least help us feel more in control. Magritte, ever the well-dressed man, would probably agree.