Is this the best an ad can get? If the goal is to put a mature, high-function, low-sizzle brand front and center of the culturally relevant news cycle on a given day, the answer seems a boisterous yes.
Earlier this week, Gillette pulled out all the stops for its foray into woke marketing, releasing the #MeToo-inspired video that applies a variation of its 30-year old tagline, “The best a man can get” to counter the devastating and more insidious manifestations and fallout from “toxic masculinity.”
Various video snippets show human and cartoon sleazebags ogling women, and a case of corporate mansplaining. But the examples of toxicity don’t focus solely on the treatment of women. The video cuts to scenes of kids bullying other kids and of two little boys wrestling through a disagreement, all under the guise “boys will be boys.” These run in contrast to examples of men behaving admirably, with the voiceover, “Some men are already doing this.”
Controversial? You bet — in the most calculated way. The top brass of Gillette and its parent company P&G, along with Grey Advertising, surely knew exactly what they were doing. They had to have predicted that reaction would erupt vociferously between two all-or-nothing camps — Men are Pigs vs. Men are Victims. And indeed, it did, with the latter more boisterous, as legions of men flocked to social media to publicly swear off Gillette razors.
Yet the reaction has not been limited to two-sided zealotry. One school of thought acknowledges the importance and positivity of the message while questioning the process — something that’s good for you, but irritating, like dentistry. My own initial reaction fell here.
Annoyance at a message that at its core extols respect for other people seems worth examining more broadly, for varying opinions, and not just those of the most overt social-media ranters. So, I texted about 20 friends and family types from ages 14 to 80, none to my knowledge among the aforementioned ranters. Some extended my query on to others, and I ultimately got reactions from about 30 people of various demographics and political and philosophical persuasions. Hardly a random sample, but interesting. It proved a topic in which all were eager to engage.
The range featured some serious male frustration, if little overt outrage. “Its p.c. run amok and stupid,” said one middle-aged man. “They would never think of making a generalization about any protected group the way they depict men in this ad.” Another called it “ridiculously condescending,” while maintaining that casting little boys wrestling in the same light as sexual harassment “is insulting to little boys who wrestle and women who have been harassed.”
That scene struck a chord across generations. “I think there are many aspects that are good, like the fact that men do need to hold other men accountable when they see someone who is sexually harassing another person or worse,” said a Gen Zer. “But labeling all men with this concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ I think is B.S. There are men who are not good people, but connecting smaller things like letting two boys wrestle to cases of sexual assault is nonsense.”
The strongest critic was a Millennial. “It’s a ham-handed corporate ad trying to capture some sort of cultural moment by villainizing half the people on earth,” he wrote. “[My] favorite part of it was ‘some already are’ — very charitable to single out we few, we happy few, we band of brothers — we non-rapist men! There are dozens of us. So proud to be part of such an elite force.”
On the other side came plenty of all-out support, much of it from men and women in the age 50-plus category. “Loved it!” one man wrote. “About time advertisers got on the right side of history. Am surprised that this is even a little controversial…I like the idea of a company standing for something as a way of promoting themselves and their products.”
Though less inclined to get all worked up, another still appreciated the message: “It sends a message to not bully, be polite, etc.,” he wrote. “I will stop getting Gillette razors…when they start making bad razors.”
A father of young-adult sons and a daughter saw “a good, positive message — boys bullying other boys is a bad thing, boys fighting other boys should be stopped, and men should not make unwanted advances on women. These are things that all good parents/fathers teach their sons.”
A woman wrote, “I was particularly impressed that a company so tied to a traditional male product, razors, was stepping into the fray…while I know it’s about selling, it’s also about a message.” And another: “Just say the right thing. It’s about civility and respect for others. I vote POWERFUL. We have not heard this message enough. And not a razor in sight.”
And a younger female point of view: “Asking people to be decent shouldn’t be controversial,” she said, adding that those who feel “marginalized” by the Gillette advertisement are probably those committing the kinds of transgressions that gave rise to the #MeToo movement.
Others, however, found what they perceive as the broad-stroke demonization of men to be over-simplified and unfair. “It’s way too preachy…I found it offensive that Gillette, or any company for that matter, thinks they have the right to parent the public on what is right and wrong,” noted one mother of three.
Another decried the blaming of a whole group for the individual horrific actions of some of their members as unfair. “We all know that there are jerks out there,” she said. “But I don’t think every man out there needs to own the responsibility for them, nor do I think P&G needs to do the lecturing.”
A teenaged girl voiced a similar sentiment. “I do not think this was the best way to represent what ‘toxic masculinity’ is and to push for a change. While I understand what message they are trying to spread, in my opinion it placed men into one category under which most do not fall.”
Then there’s the matter of marshaling a topic as emotional and devastating as sexual harassment for commercial purposes, which some found outright crass. “It is a great publicity marketing tool for Madison Avenue…,” said one woman. “Personally, I am against something personal being made into something profitable as Hollywood and Madison Ave. are doing.”
The youngest respondents were interested and thoughtful. “If it’s trying to promote awareness for sexual harassment and bullying, it did not offend me,” said a 14-year-old boy. “Even though they stereotyped all males, I understand the message.”
Conversely, from a 10-year-old boy: “I do not think that this commercial is good because it’s a stereotypical commercial painting a bad picture [of] men. It might make young girls think that all boys will grow up to be like that. And it has nothing to do with shaving.”
The most clinical comment came from an advertising-world alum. She called [P&G] “very sophisticated advertisers with tons of clout,” and noted that they likely conducted focus groups on the project. “It’s not original, but effective because everyone is talking about it…A lot of free media coverage. It creates buzz and awareness.”
Apart from that professional take, the most analytical respondents as a demographic were Millennials and adult Gen Zers, most of them in New York and L.A., and left-leaning in their politics. Some appreciated the message while questioning the platform.
“I don’t know that a Gillette ad is the appropriate or most effective platform to explain the history of sexism,” said one woman, “but I think the intention, to inspire and rally men to be kinder to women and each other — and likely in doing so act their real beliefs rather than the conventional machismo mold — is valid. I don’t see this as villainizing, though I do see it as an oversimplification (because it’s a one-minute commercial), which I can see might insult some.”
“I’m not a fan of using politics for profit in general,” said another. “But examining the message alone, and not the tacky attempt to sell razors with it, I don’t think it’s so terrible. It’s not saying men or masculinity are bad. It’s saying, correctly, that Western culture perpetuates very harmful models of masculinity. This doesn’t mean men need to act more like women. It means men need to act more like men and less like children.”
Still another, “Do I understand why they did this? Yes. Any reputable brand has to eventually address important topics in society in order to gain and/or maintain a specific customer base. [But] I think that the negative image of men overpowers the [call] for change.” She wondered if, as a result, rather than engage Millennials, the ad might instead alienate the older segment of Gillette’s customer base.
In that context, the a-word, authenticity, came up. “It’s a good message but s—-y commercial,” said a Gen Z man. “It just seems phony, like a large corporation is just jumping on the most recent social bandwagon.”
Others expressed old-school consumer exhaustion. “Honestly, I just want a moratorium on woke brands in 2019,” one woman said.
Perhaps because not all wokeness projects as genuine. On Gillette’s web site, a preachy epistle notes that “many [men] find themselves at a crossroads, caught between the past and a new era of masculinity,” and that “changes are needed…As a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man…From today on, we plan to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette.”
All well and good, save for the self-congratulatory implication of cultural leadership. To that end, comparisons to Nike’s Colin Kaepernick commercial are way off base. Love what he did or hate it, Kaepernick showed true leadership and nobility of purpose; he took a dramatic stand (well, knee), to draw attention to one the most fraught aspects of American culture. He did so at great risk to himself, and as it turns out, suffered for it in a quantifiable way. Granted, that Nike saw an opportunity there and pounced is another take on social-issue marketing, but one that proselytizes via genuine good example rather than platitude.
Gillette — not so much. The video opportunistically manipulates a serious cultural issue, this major, mainstream brand hopping on an already crowded bandwagon to help hawk product. It recalls Don Draper going hippy-dippy then putting his newfound spirituality to pragmatic use: Let’s buy the world a Coke.
Which circles back to whether this is the best an ad can get. Given the results of my query, which, sent out after 8 p.m. (albeit to a small and non-random list) garnered a stream of immediate responses and multiple conversations that continued into the next day, my anecdotal conclusion is yes. The point of advertising is product and/or brand awareness, and these folks were aware. Such was noted by one of my Millennials, who at the time I queried was at work with a colleague on a writing project. “The ad,” she said, “accomplished exactly what it was supposed to, in that the two of us have now said the word Gillette more in the past 20 minutes than in the sum total of the rest of our lives.”