Last week, shaving brand Gillette released what may already end up being one of the most controversial adverts of 2019. The message that’s caused so much uproar? ‘We know that men can do better.’
Bringing a new and more powerful meaning to their thirty-year-old tagline “The Best a Man Can Get”, Gillette’s ad puts toxic masculinity under the microscope and asks its target audience, is this really the best we are capable of? Going beyond the superficial, the ad highlights everything from backyard bullying to the #MeToo movement, and isn’t afraid to drill down into the darkest elements of toxic masculinity.
Gillette’s call to action is for men to do better. In the words of Terry Crews, a sexual assault survivor testifying in front of Congress, “men need to hold other men accountable”. The ad shows men stepping in to stop sexual harassment, and calling out that age-old excuse: “boys will be boys”. Men of privilege (whether that be of race, gender, sexuality, ability or combination of) are encouraged to step up in the fight against toxic masculinity – because they know that they’re capable of doing so.
The ad was watched over two million times within the first forty eight hours. And of course, there has been a backlash, with the usual suspects out in force (honestly, I tried scrolling through P*ers M*rgan’s Twitter feed to quote something here, but it just made me want to throw my laptop out the window). Many have criticised the advert for demonising its customer base, saying to “let boys be boys and men be men” – with seemingly no awareness of the irony in this statement, as the ad itself depicts an endless row of barbequing men drone “boys will be boys” as their children fight each other in the backyard.
So why would a brand like Gillette run with such a (sadly) divisive message? Because they’ve decided it’s profitable. At the end of the day, they’re still trying to sell us something, and wouldn’t attach themselves to a cause if they didn’t think it was profitable. In a Twitter thread by Tom Morton, the statistics behind Gillette’s jump to social activism as marketing are laid out, including the shifting perceptions of traditional masculinity among young people and the need for Gillette to change their approach to this new audience.
Now let’s look at the upcoming razor buyer. 48% of Gen Z are minorities (Pew 2018) and 34% identify as less than completely straight (Ipsos Mori 2018.) Tradtional displays of masculinity are going to be less relevant to new razor buyers.
— Tom Morton (@tommorton) January 16, 2019
This is not the first time a major brand has adopted social activism as a means of marketing. While some of them have been nothing short of disastrous (cough, Pepsi-Jennergate, cough), there are those that have attempted to actually understand the movements they’re piggybacking on for profit – and Gillette appears to be one of them. Looking at the contents of the ad itself, they could probably have gotten away with less than what they did, and went deeper than was perhaps ‘needed’ in order to tap into a movement. They are not afraid to show the worst of toxic masculinity, even knowing there would be plenty MRAs shouting out against it – at the time of writing, the ad on YouTube has over one million dislikes to just over 600,000 likes.
A statement on TheBestMenCanBe.org goes even further:
“It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And 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. With that in mind, we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and coming communication and reflecting on the types of men and behaviours we want to celebrate. We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.”
The ad asks men to take responsibility for each other – and it leads by example by acknowledging the role media has in enforcing toxic masculinity (even playing clips of their more ‘traditional’ adverts to illustrate the point). The brand has also partnered with the Building a Better Man project, which seeks to reduce violent behaviour in men, and The Boys and Girls Club of America, whose goal is to help young men develop better social and communication skills. They are donating one million dollars (around £778,000) a year for the next three years to charities like these aimed at supporting men. And as we’ve always said here at The Notebook, if a brand wants to jump on the activism bandwagon in order to push product, they need to put their money where their mouth is.
“If a man thinks that asking other men not to bully, shame, harass or humiliate others is an attack on masculinity as a whole, it’s pretty clear what they think it means to be a man.”
Rather than a vague, inoffensive-as-possible advert with a few activism buzzwords thrown in, Gillette went for something that they knew would aggravate a certain demographic – a demographic that has significant overlap with their customer base. While still selling a product at the end of the day, their campaign conveyed an actual message – if selling razors was the main goal, awareness and calling men to do better really was a strong second.
In fighting against the message the Gillette ad is sending, masses of men are further shining a light on the problem. If a man thinks that asking other men to do better – not to bully, shame, harass or humiliate others – is an attack on masculinity as a whole, it pretty clearly shows what they think it means to be a man.
If more traditionally masculine brands challenge this perception of what it means to be a man, even in the name of making a profit, there’s a chance that these messages will soak into the cultural consciousness the same way that toxic ones have in the past. And that can only be a good thing.
The next generation of men is watching.