Old Spice & BYU: What message goes viral

In 1985, I was in Salt Lake working on my Ph.D. at the University of Utah — with a beard.  My major professor and mentor, Bob Tiemens, was doing a collaborative project with Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, UT.  He planned a class trip to BYU to collect data.  The day before we were to visit, he called me into is office — he had some paperwork for me to fill out.  He didn’t need to see anyone else but me — kind of strange.  Now my mind is a little hazy.  The late seventies to early eighties were filled with many experiences that now seem more like dreams than reality.  But my recollection of the paper work is that it was an official BYU form entitled “Permit to Deviate.”  No  kidding.  Why did I need to fill it out?  The beard.  Then AND now, “Dress and Grooming Standards” in the BYU Honor Code forbid beards — unless you have a skin disease that prevents shaving.  For those of you who don’t know, BYU is affiliated with the Church of Latter Day Saints — the Mormon church.  It is a private institution and they have every right to enforce whatever standards they please.  If I was going to be on campus, I had to carry my “Permit to Deviate” to show I was not a student and was therefore exempt from the no-beard rule.  During our visit, I never got stopped.  Everybody at BYU was unfailingly polite to me.  But I knew exactly where that Permit was every minute — just in case.  Wow, I wish I had saved that Permit — it could have gotten me out of so many jams.  It would framed and the first thing I hang in my new office.  So like a lot of other people, I have an ingrained perception of BYU as a pretty grim, humorless, and intolerant space.

That is why I was shocked when I watched a YouTube video that came out of BYU.  The social media world has been abuzz with the latest Old Spice body wash campaign.  Technically awesome!  Hilarious!  I haven’t laughed out loud watching a commercial in years — if I wasn’t lactose intolerant, there would have been milk coming out of my nose.  Funny, funny, funny.  I have been sending it to a bunch of people.  Then Old Spice followed up by releasing the commercials’ star, Isaiah Mustafa, answering questions that were tweeted, facebooked, and emailed to him — here you can see hundreds of them.  In fact, one fan tweeted to ask him to propose to his girlfriend — this video response was up in an hour.  Of course she said yes.  I know you are thinking the same thing I am — body wash is the secret of connubial bliss.  You can read here about this campaign.

What does BYU have to do with Old Spice.  Look at this.  A video encouraging students to study in the library ala Old Spice.  BYU doing a parody?  Mimicking personal hygiene products? Funny in Provo? Would Brother Brigham turn over in his grave?  It is superb — produced by the multimedia department at the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU.  And here is the real kicker.  A black man is the star in this video.  I have searched for his name but I can’t find it.  Why is this relevant?  It wasn’t until 1978 that the LDS Church president had a revelation that black men could participate in all aspects of the Mormon church (sorry, all women still are limited).

“New Spice: Study Like a Scholar” has gone viral — over a million views since it was posted on YouTube on four days ago.  And why not.  It is clever, funny, and technically, well, awesome.  So people are passing it around.  But what is the real message that is being conveyed in the video.  Was BYU trying to communicate something bigger than the smart study environment choices? You bet.  Traveling on the back of funny is an idea of what BYU is like — technologically sophisticated, pop culturally saavy, witty, and, maybe even the most important, inclusive.  And I am helping them spread this view of BYU every time I share the video — and I will be sharing it a lot.  Honestly, this video really made me evaluate my previous impression of BYU.  How is that for valuable ROI!

In the past few years, if I had a byte for every time someone told “I want to make a viral video” I would be pushing my gmail storage limit.  I always ask exactly what it is they want to spread.  They always say the video.  Wrong answer.  Seems like the people at BYU figured out how to use video as the carrier for an important and powerful idea they want to go viral.  The video isn’t important — the messages (both subtle and blatant) are what matter.  In the world of viral videos, seems like BYU has a permit to deviate.

Scott Shamp is the Director of the New Media Institute in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. The New Media Institute is an interdisciplinary unit created to explore the creative, critical, and commercial implications of new digital communication technology. Shamp currently serves on the Board of the International Digital Media and Arts Association. He has been a member of iDMAa since its founding in 2003.
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