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Will Ferrell smells good to Old Spice

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Times Staff Writer

The pitchman calls himself Jackie Moon, but he is unmistakably Will Ferrell in character as the 1970s basketball player from his upcoming comedy “Semi-Pro,” complete with Afro, headband and short shorts.

Everyone sweats six liters a day, he explains, glowering into the camera from a locker room.

“Now, I’m not familiar with the metric system or any other foreign language, but that’s the equivalent of 300 gallons, I would guess,” Ferrell says with a shrug, then commands: “Hey, cauterize your sweat glands shut . . . sss-ka-owww . . . with Old Spice Pro Strength antiperspirant.”

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The science is beyond flimsy, but the logic of the unusual cross-promotion is clear.

Ferrell, one of the most tireless -- some would say shameless -- promoters on Hollywood’s A-list, stars in a series of jocular television commercials pitching Procter & Gamble Co.’s newest addition to the Old Spice product line. The spots help raise the profile of the R-rated “Semi-Pro,” coming Friday from New Line Cinema, while reaching the young male consumers P&G; covets through humor, their preferred form of communication.

In “Semi-Pro,” Ferrell’s character owns, coaches and plays for a hapless Flint, Mich., basketball team named the Tropics.

The actor, who did not respond to interview requests, ad-libbed much of the material in the eight ads during a daylong shoot, signing off with such politically incorrect tag lines as “Don’t smell like a turtle cage” and “The finest street-legal antiperspirant you can get outside of Mexico that’s not poisonous.”

For P&G;, the Cincinnati-based consumer products conglomerate whose portfolio also includes Tide, Crest, Pringles and Pampers, the campaign is the latest move aimed at reinvigorating the venerable Old Spice brand. The company launched Pro Strength antiperspirant and deodorant in January.

Old Spice, introduced in the late 1930s, first as a fragrance for women before becoming a favorite of American males, had been considered a ‘70s relic with flagging sales to match when P&G; bought it in 1990.

The company reached out to younger males with grass-roots marketing, replaced the clipper ship on the distinctive cologne bottle with a sleek racing yacht and added product lines such as High Endurance and Red Zone to complement the original Old Spice.

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Old Spice, whose chief rivals include Axe, Right Guard and Degree, claims about 12% of total antiperspirant and deodorant sales, a market that Information Resources Inc. estimates at $1.2 billion, and is the leading brand aimed at males, according to P&G.; Sales have quadrupled in the last decade, driven by the newer lines.

“What was a sleepy brand has become a fantastic growth story,” said James Moorhead, P&G;’s Old Spice brand manager.

Working with the Portland, Ore., advertising firm Wieden & Kennedy, P&G; “repositioned” the brand more than a year ago starting with a humorous commercial starring B-movie actor Bruce Campbell that was tagged with the line “Experience is everything” along with the classic whistle from Old Spice’s 1970s ads. The dapper, strong-chinned star of the “Evil Dead” horror movies reminded consumers of Old Spice’s heritage even as he made good-natured sport of it.

“We’ve found humor a very effective way to communicate with guys 18 to 34 years old,” Moorhead said.

Other marketers are tapping into the cheeky machismo theme as well. A popular TV, print and online campaign for Dos Equis beer features a suave, bearded actor portraying an adventurer known only as “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

Because of its sports theme, P&G; considered “Semi-Pro” a perfect tie-in partner for Pro Strength, a premium, $7.99 stick aimed at the 25% to 33% of males who consider themselves unusually active perspirers, “either on a going basis or in situations,” as Moorhead put it.

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The company has been running the commercials on TNT’s NBA telecasts and such shows as Comedy Central’s “Futurama” and “The Colbert Report,” and this month posted all eight versions at its Old Spice website. P&G; said daily traffic at www.oldspice.com has jumped sixfold but declined to give specific figures.

For New Line, which also approved a cross-promotion with Anheuser-Busch Cos.’ Bud Light that aired on Super Bowl Sunday, the deals helped make males -- the core audience for Ferrell’s comedies -- aware that “Semi-Pro” was coming soon.

“One of the benefits of tying in with brands like Bud and Old Spice is that their established equity and identity to the consumer acts as a shorthand for us as to the kind of film we have,” said Chris Carlisle, president of domestic marketing at the studio, which is owned by Time Warner Inc. “Both brands have humorous, edgy positioning that complements the film.”

In developing the movie’s marketing campaign, New Line figured that fans of Ferrell’s off-kilter comedy would match the Old Spice market “in terms of psychographics as well as demographics,” Carlisle said. In other words, regular guys.

So it approached P&G; through Alliance, the brand marketing agency that helps develop entertainment deals for Old Spice. Ferrell, who donated his commercial fees to the Cancer for College charity, also toured colleges with a trio of stand-up comics to pump the movie.

Old Spice does not appear in “Semi-Pro,” as its logo did in Ferrell’s 2006 NASCAR spoof “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

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But perspiration plays a supporting role. Ferrell’s character made his fortune as a one-hit wonder with the disco song “Love Me Sexy,” purring in a cheesy video, “Let’s fill the bathtub full of sweat.”

The Old Spice tie-in, which also includes in-store displays featuring Ferrell’s character, was worth millions of dollars in promotional value, Carlisle said. The TV ads were tagged with the film’s release date.

A sports comedy starring the guy from “Talladega Nights” and “Blades of Glory” would seem like an almost certain hit, but New Line was taking no chances with “Semi-Pro,” a movie that cost nearly $40 million to produce.

“The marketplace has never been more competitive,” Carlisle said. “In a typical week there may be six to nine new releases entering the market, so it can be really hard to stand out.”

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josh.friedman@latimes.com

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