Gillette courted controversy with its latest ad. Was it a mistake?

On January 14, Gillette, the international razor giant owned by Procter & Gamble, took a risk by releasing a video which inverted its usual tagline from “The best a man can get” to “Is this the best a man can get?”.

The ad (dubbed a “short film” in its YouTube title) begins with a man looking in a mirror, a common image in razor ads. But rather than follow this with a close-up of the hair on his face and neck being cleanly sliced by a Gillette razor, it suggests that he’s reflecting on something deeper than a smooth shave. The remainder of the video portrays various iterations of what is often termed “toxic masculinity” – that is, typically masculine behavior which is harmful to others (the phrase is heard in a background news report at the beginning of the ad). Examples here include online bullying, young boys fighting, grown men threating violence, a woman having her voice in the meeting room silenced by a male colleague, one man attempting to follow an attractive woman down a city street, and another trying to pick up women at a pool.

Hardly a complete list of the evil men do, but these acts have the advantage of manageability: many are later shown to be resolved by other men calmly intervening, followed by images of young boys with the text “The boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.” The implication seems to be that men need to look at themselves and take responsibility for the consequences of bad male behavior they take part in or implicitly condone. Connections to shaving are tenuous at best, but calling out one’s own customers is an undeniably bold move in brand positioning.

It’s also a potentially lucrative one. And whatever the ad’s intent, there’s no doubt that it’s made money from views – nearly 20 million of them at the time of writing. Response, however, has been sharply divided, with twice as many dislikes as likes and social media using it as ammunition in the “culture wars” between supporters of progressive gender concepts and traditional ones. This was undeniably part of Gillette’s plan. Per Slate:

“The wide range of reactions was, of course, the point: to create a conversation starter. To rile people and get them talking about Gillette. To increase brand recognition amid Gillette’s declining market share and, ultimately, make Procter & Gamble more money.”

At least the first part seems to have worked. On Twitter, some have directed praise towards the company’s stance in favor of a more compassionate form of masculinity, while others criticize and threaten a boycott for its overly broad judgment on the state of men in general, or for a perceived progressive political agenda. And of course, the two camps bicker and snipe at each other in often nasty (and sometimes sexist or racist) fashion.

Time will tell whether the gamble has succeeded or backfired, but Dollar Shave Club, Gillette’s largest direct competitor in the US, is not hedging their bets, implicitly positioning itself as the brand for those who have sworn off Gillette with a simple Tweet: “Welcome to the Club.”

There’s another angle to this, however, which raises questions about how marketing works in the modern world. Outside of those using the ad for their own causes, many people take issue less with the message than with its source. “Thanks for the moral advice, multi-national company that was recently caught profiting off forced child labour and price fixing,” reads the top comment on Youtube. Several others point out that Gillette still sells razors branded for women at higher prices than functionally identical ones marketed to men – the so-called “pink tax” – making it hardly a paragon of gender equality. And as Adweek points out, they’re far from the first to do it.

It’s a tenet of marketing that brands and corporations have beliefs and principles they wish to reflect, and that it’s a marketer’s job to do so. But in cases like this, of what’s been called “commodity activism,” one must ask whether these are reflections of actual ideals and practices, or simply craven attempts to profit from consumers willing to put their money towards a cause (or perhaps more likely, a bit of both).

Pepsi’s 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner was excoriated for attempting to position their soft drink as the solution to social unrest. Nike, on the other hand, savvily used Colin Kaepernick’s status as a protest icon to position themselves as the shoe brand of the Black Lives Matter movement, though they also faced scrutiny. But more tasteful content (Gillette’s actual products are completely absent in their ad) may not be enough for people wary of having their socio-political loyalties used to sell them things. For evidence that this is the case, one need only look at Gillette’s CSR efforts for this campaign: $1million to nonprofits each year for the next three is better than nothing, but it pales in comparison to the company’s sales of over $6Billion and is clearly a lower priority than keeping its name on the Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts, for which it pays $7million a year.

Though if Gillette’s motive is merely opportunistic, what’s so bad about that? Well, Ideological dissonance, for one; as a Vox article points out, “it is inherently nonsensical to use feminism to sell men’s grooming products, or any products, as feminism is a political movement bent on dismantling current structures of power, which likely includes multibillion-dollar corporations like Procter & Gamble.” But marketing is designed to connect with people, meaning it inevitably fails if it can’t keep up with the concerns of its target audience and alienates them instead. And there’s ample data showing both that men are eager to break out of traditional concepts of masculinity as well as that millennials are more inclined than prior generations to support products associated with a cause.

So when big corporations stumble while trying to appeal to the zeitgeist, who’s to blame? The corporations for trying, their stakeholders for demanding it, or the institutions of modern marketing for apparently deciding that adding fuel to the fires of social discord is good business?


By Derek Wells, an International Relations Associate and Copywriter at @EloQ Communications (formerly Vero IMC Vietnam).


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