“Humor is the denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at. The classic example: you see a very snooty, very well dressed dowager walking down the street, and then she slips on a banana peel . . . . What’s funny about it? It’s the contrast of the woman’s pretensions to reality. She acted very grand, but reality undercut it with a plain banana peel. That’s the denial of the metaphysical validity or importance of the pretensions of that woman. Therefore, humor is a destructive element—which is quite all right, but its value and its morality depend on what it is that you are laughing at. If what you are laughing at is the evil in the world (provided that you take it seriously, but occasionally you permit yourself to laugh at it), that’s fine. [To] laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values, and above all at yourself [is] monstrous . . . . The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.” – Leonard Peikoff, The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series, Lecture 11, 1976
This commercial is a parody of the type of commercial that producers of personal hygeine products were known for employing during the 20th Century (especially in the 1970’s and 80’s). What was the element of the human experience that such commercials gave metaphysical importance to? Which element is this new commercial mocking? Succinctly, it’s the connection between what kind of man one is (ie: the choices he makes in every area of his life, including his personal ones) and the work that he does. It’s a recognition of the fact that to be successful at work one has to have the same approach to all things. One has to be integrated. All of his life’s facets must work harmoniously with each other to symbiotically support one another. They must not be in contradiction, and working to undermine one another. To bring the same seriousness, passion, and conscientious judgment to all of one’s choices – big and small – will make all of his life better off. That is the notion that the old commercials celebrated, and what this new commercials mocks.
Given today’s macroeconomic environment, it’s no surprise that such a notion would be expected to be met with contempt. Relative to even the Mid-20th Century (when it was by no means completely direct but certainly more so than today), the direct connection between overall virtue and professional success is almost non-existent today. To be a virtuous person guarantees nothing these days in terms of economic success (if anything it guarantees the opposite). It’s almost impossible to know why a given man is successful and why another is not. While there are still some slivers of the society that allow for – or even demand – personal virtue (and only personal virtue) in order to reach financial goals, the overwhelming majority of them don’t necessarily do. It’s just as easy these days to get rich by being immoral as it is by being moral (or any precarious mixture of the two). A rich man’s riches tell you nothing about his moral stature, just as a poor man’s rags tell you nothing about his.
Everyone knows this. Few acknowledge it (the culture still hides behind the pretense that America is still a meritocracy, just as it’s always been), but everyone knows it – subconsciously. If they didn’t, then this commercial would not have been released. It would not have been expected to succeed – and if by some fluke it had been released anyway, it would have received widespread denunciation. Instead, not only has it been released, but accepted and praised. Why? Because it provides people with an answer to the uncertainty described above. It tells them that those who succeed actually are immoral (and always have been). By linking the type of man who was praised in such commercials decades ago not with professional ability, but with incompetence (“the worst architect in the world”), it gives people a comforting feeling that such men who were once praised are now “getting what they deserve” (contempt) “because they aren’t really good at their jobs anyway.” It allows some people to feel as though the fact that men were better in previous generations was all just a lie – which helps to sever the connection between their overall immorality and their lack of professional competence. It helps them to believe that it’s not a vice to be immoral and/or a financial failure, but a virtue. It’s simply a lack of pretentiousness. A cold, hard, mature look at the way the world really is: hopeless and pointless. Or, if successful, it allows them to feel as though their immorality is actually a okay because, even though they have professional success just as the virtuous man does, he is (and always has been) really just as inept as they are (so what difference does it make that they reached that same status by social climbing, or pandering – instead of hard work as he did?).
Old Spice is attempting to pander to the worst in people – their jealousy, their nihilism, their hatred of the good for being the good – in order to make a short-term profit (at the expense of their long-term self interest, since it’s these same attitudes that gets anti-business politicians elected). It’s disgusting, but understandable – given the fact that in today’s economy no business can afford to thing about anything except the short-term.