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Once again, the country seems divided. This time, it’s not a border wall or a health care proposal driving the animus, but an online ad for a men’s razor, because, of course. But underneath the controversy lies something much more important: signs of real change.
On January 13, Gillette released a new ad that takes the company’s 30-year-old slogan, “The Best a Man Can Get,” and turns it into an introspective reflection on toxic masculinity very much of this cultural moment. Titled “We Believe,” the nearly two-minute video features a diverse cast of boys getting bullied, of teens watching media representatives of macho guys objectifying women, and of men looking into the mirror while news reports of #MeToo and toxic masculinity play in the background. A voiceover asks “Is this the best a man can get?” The answer is no, and the film shows how men can do better by actively pointing out toxic behavior, intervening when other men catcall or sexually harass, and helping protect their children from bullies. The ad blew up; as of Wednesday afternoon it has more than 12 million views on YouTube, and #GilletteAd has trended on Twitter nationwide. Parents across Facebook shared the YouTube link in droves, many mentioning how the ad brought them to tears.
And then, with perfect internet timing, the backlash came. The ad played differently with men’s rights activists, Fox News, and the Piers Morgans of the world. People shared videos and photos throwing disposable razors into the toilet (not a good idea—they aren’t exactly flushable). Men argued that the ad was anti-male, that it lumped all men in together as sexists, and that it denigrated traditional masculine qualities. But whatever noise has surrounded it, the fact that “We Believe” exists at all is an undeniable sign of progress.
“Advertising reflects society,” says Henry Assael, professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business. They’ve also become yet another battleground in the country’s larger culture wars. Though some people have made hay on Twitter about never using Gillette again, Assael says buying habits, particularly with something as habitual as a razor, are hard to break. He estimates most people don’t really follow through with their threats to abandon a brand over controversies like this. Take Nike and its ads featuring Colin Kaepernick last year: While there were vocal calls for boycotting the company at the time, it wound up reporting stronger than expected growth in its most recent earnings report.
Gillette’s ad plays on the feeling that men right now want to be better, but don’t necessarily know how. When Gillette was researching market trends last year, in the wake of #MeToo and a national conversation about the behavior of some of the country’s most powerful men, the company asked men how to define being a great man, according to Pankaj Bhalla, North American brand director for Gillette. The company conducted focus groups with men and women across the country, in their homes, and in online surveys. What Bhalla says the team heard over and over again was men saying: “I know I’m not a bad guy. I’m not that person. I know that, but what I don’t know is how can I be the best version of ourselves?”
“And literally we asked ourselves the same question as a brand. How can we be a better version of ourselves?” Bhalla adds. The answer is this ad campaign, and a promise to donate $ 1 million a year for three years to nonprofits that support boys and men being positive role models.
There’s broader evidence as well that the mainstream concept of masculinity is evolving. Last summer, the American Psychological Association issued guidelines saying that “traditional masculinity ideology” can be harmful for boys and men. When the guidelines got media attention last week, they received a fair share of criticism from conservatives, who viewed them as an attack on long-standing male traits.
Since the #MeToo era ramped up in 2017, the question has been: Will this change anything? Advertising can be a litmus test for where a culture is—an imperfect one at times, but a useful one. Companies run ads to make money, so they wouldn’t knowingly risk espousing beliefs that the majority abhor. Advertising is not so much about creating a new desire as it is about playing into what people already want.
“Advertising is in the business of reading cultural trends, that’s what they do,” says Lisa Jacobson, professor of history at the University of California Santa Barbara who focuses on the history of consumer culture. “They spend a lot of time reading culture, thinking about culture, focus-grouping cultural shifts, so they are attuned to it.”
Gillette’s Bhalla acknowledges that the company would not have made this ad a decade ago. “The insight that ‘I am not the bad guy but I don’t know how to be a great guy,’ that insight wouldn’t have come 10 years ago, because this wasn’t in our ether. It wasn’t in our society at the time,” he says.
Even today, Bhalla and his team knew the ad would not please everyone. An ad addressing such overtly controversial ideas is inherently risky. It could backfire and appear craven, as Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad did when it seemed to trivialize Black Lives Matter, and it could alienate existing and future customers. “We Believe” has about 713,000 dislikes on YouTube.
At the same time, thousands of people are talking about the ad online, and the campaign has prominent coverage in media outlets like this one. “It’s a calculated gamble,” says Jacobson. Even if Gillette does lose a few MRA activists, it stands to gain more new customers than it will lose.
Daniel Pope, a historian who has written extensively about advertising in America, says that although this ad is clearly speaking to certain anxieties and desires in the culture, it’s a classically segmented or targeted ad. “Given the hostility that it’s brought forth from conservatives and anti-feminist circles, [it’s clear] they are not appealing to everybody here. They are looking to a particular demographic based on perhaps political beliefs, education levels, feelings of gender equality.”
Jacobson also notes the tropes of the ad appear to make an explicit play for millennial and Generation Z men, who are the generations most embracing and driving the change in masculinity. It’s similarly an appeal to the mothers who buy their sons their first razors. Going after women is a smart business move, since women often do a majority of the household shopping, and Pope notes women also make up a good percentage of Gillette’s customer base. (Bhalla told WIRED the gender breakdown of Gillette customers is roughly 60 percent to 70 percent male, but that doesn’t necessarily capture cases where women are buying products for the men in their lives.)
Though Gillette didn’t say this outright, the ad also works as a sort of corporate prophylactic against allegations of sexism or insensitivity, which many corporations have faced lately. Gillette is a subsidiary of Procter & Gamble, which sells many family and women-focused products in its other brand lines. “I have a feeling it was very much a corporate decision,” says Assael.
Gillette’s older ads showed clean-shaven men kissing women, sending the message that the right shave can win you the girl. In 2013, the company launched a campaign called “Kiss and Tell,” which asked couples to make out before and after the man had shaved and then report back.
The company is not alone in abandoning ad campaigns based on this kind of “women as object and reward” messaging. In fact, it’s following in the footsteps of Axe Body Spray, which for years relied on the idea that if you sprayed the stuff on women would come running. In 2017, Axe parent company Unilever unveiled a new ad campaign called “It’s OK for Guys,” which fought the idea of toxic masculinity by making it clear that it’s OK for men to have emotions, or be skinny, or not like sports. Like Procter & Gamble, Unilever has many family brands under its umbrella, and it was perhaps no longer appropriate to have Axe’s brand out there selling stereotypical machismo.
It’s not only stereotypical gender roles that the Gillette ad attempts to dismantle; it also subverts harmful racial stereotypes. The ad opens with an African American man contemplating his face in the mirror, and it highlights Terry Crews’ congressional testimony in which he advocated for men to stand up and intervene in toxic culture. It goes on to show African American fathers supporting their daughters, educating other men about sexist behavior, and protecting women from catcalling.
“I think this is a subconscious reason why this is getting under the skin of Piers Morgan and Fox and Friends,” says Jacobson. “It’s because this is inverting an old narrative in which white supremacists or just casual racists have attributed toxic masculinity to African American men.”
She’s talking about the racist stereotypes that paint African American males as prone to criminal behavior like sexual assault, or as absentee fathers. By showing black men intervening to stop these behaviors—which the ad shows largely being undertaken by white men—it subtly rejects those harmful tropes.
This careful treatment of race is not necessarily the norm in advertising. According to Assael, the industry was slow to adopt racial inclusiveness and diversity even after the civil rights movement. Gillette’s ad was handled with uncharacteristic thoughtfulness.
Much of the reaction to Gillette’s ad has been positive. Across the board, media and ad experts WIRED spoke to agreed the commercial was clever and as emotionally moving as an ad can really ever hope to be. Though the backlash to it clearly shows that the cultural divisions in America persist, its very existence is proof that the old definitions are masculinity are changing.