Mary Oliver died this week.
The beloved poet once wrote:
“Instructions for living a life: / Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.”
Also this week, Gillette launched its campaign, “We Believe” and many friends and colleagues shared it with me, asking for my POV.
Taking a cue from Mary Oliver, I am paying attention. I am (a bit) astonished. And, so here I am telling about it.
Like I’ve done in the past, I want to address this campaign with a question:
“How should we respond?”
The ad shows men and boys acting a fool - sexual harassment, bullying, and setting poor examples for their children. The spot ends with a question of whether this is indeed “the best a man could be” (a riff on its now 30-year-old tagline “Best a Man Can Get”) and encouraging men to “strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.”
Here’s how some consumers have responded:
In a world where media outlets profit from sensational stories, publications like Business Insider have made it seem like a barrage of angry men (with pitchforks, no doubt) are boycotting the ad.
Certainly, some loud voices like this guy with guns in a field (.......WHAT……) are stomping their feet, throwing their razors into the toilet in “protest” and generally being angry on social media. The reactions on the video's Youtube are overwhelmingly negative (trolls will be trolls.)
But, a survey this week of over 2,000 adults by Morning Consult found that the “backlash may be overblown — most people surveyed said they had a positive opinion of the ad after watching it.” FastCompany found the online response to the ad has been mostly positive.
How P&G has responded:
P&G has no plans to pull the spot despite the backlash.
“We recognize it’s sparking a lot of passionate dialogue — at the same time, it’s getting people to stop and think about what it means to be our best selves, which is the point of the spot,” said Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette brand director for North America via MarketWatch
That's in line with the microsite for the campaign on Gillette’s site, which explicitly states:
“It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture… From today on, we pledge to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette.”
WIRED found that the campaign came out of “the wake of #MeToo and a national conversation about the behavior of some of the country’s most powerful men.” The company conducted focus groups with men and women asking them how to define being a great man.
“...we asked ourselves the same question as a brand. How can we be a better version of ourselves?” said Bhalla.
Though some have rightfully highlighted some pretty sexist marketing moves by the brand, the statement above indicates the company is looking to admit it’s got to do better, and pledge that it will. (We should all pay attention to see if that’s the case.)
In addition, there seems to be far more to the campaign that simply this video. This particular spot is getting far more attention than the whole of the campaign, which features more positive stories in other spots. Via FastCompany:
“The idea of giving more meaning, depth, and accountability to Gillette’s decades-old slogan led the brand to create a series of ads exemplifying what it’s dubbed “bestness” from every conceivable angle. There’s the NFL spot with Shaquem Griffin, exploring how the one-handed Seahawks linebacker has achieved bestness against adversity, and there’s the YouTube ad for Gillette’s Treo razor, which showcases a middle-aged man taking care of his father (partly by shaving him). In the coming weeks, these ads will be joined by a new installment revealing what firefighters have to do to save lives.”
Was this a good move from Gillette?
From a marketing perspective -- Gillette is facing increasing noise from insurgent brands such as Dollar Shave Club (now owned by Unilever) and Harry’s shaving club (which recently netted $112M in new financing). The advent of contract manufacturing has made it easier for these brands to enter the space, and consumers are far more familiar with the subscription-style purchase that underpins their business model.
Harry’s is taking advantage of the buzz to deploy ads like this one below, which links to their mantra that “big razor brands have lured consumers into paying higher prices for razor models with new features.”
But, even though they’re loud, these brands only capture 8% and 2% of the $2.8 billion market, respectively. Gillette is still the big dog, competing mostly with Schick.
My take: I think this campaign was launched to make a very stark point -- we are not going to compete with any longer only on accessibility (delivered to your door) or blade quality and technological innovation. Now, it’s going to be a battle over values and cultural relevance.
As Scott Mautz, who used to work for Gillette’s parent company for 20+ years, said,
“At least it makes me feel something… I successfully ran the marketing for multiple billion-dollar brands at P&G and evaluated more advertising than I can remember. The criteria I always started with when reviewing a new ad was, does it make me feel something? Does it make me think? Laugh? Cry? Make me angry?”
Looking back, a decade ago, Gillette controlled 70% of the U.S. Market. Last year, its market share dropped to below 50%, forcing it to slash razor prices by 12%. (Note, it claims to have 70% of the market share on online retailers like Amazon and Jet.com.)
This was a bold move from a brand that needed to create a bold, emotional reaction - and with 20M views on Youtube and a slew of press coverage, that’s exactly what was created.
This move is not totally radical for Gillette.
The company has a long history of associating their razors with values like virtue, potential, and mastery.
Salesman King C. Gillette invented the disposable safety razor at the turn of the last century, according to this CNBC piece.
“Clean-shaven faces were synonymous with virtue and manliness, a Western preoccupation that dates back to when Alexander the Great ordered his men to scrape off their beards before battling the Persian armies in 331 B.C., according to Christopher Oldstone-Moore, historian and author of the book, "Beards and Men."
"The country's future is written in the faces of young men," one blurb from 1910 declared, continuing, "The Gillette is a builder of regular habits. Own a Gillette—be a master of your time—shave in three minutes."
Another ad from the same year indicated that Gillette's razors separated independent, civilized men from brutes and effeminate males: "Woman is the great civilizer. If it were not for her, man would revert to whiskers and carry a club. . . . "
So, why the backlash?
Truthfully, this particular ad felt like a patronizing PSA. It also inflamed tensions between genders further at a time when we are at our most polarized in the US, and when movements like feminism and #metoo are villainized by some as a threat.
“When we talk politics today, our voices are loud and fractious, always passionate and often divisive. Our conversations are rarely rational debates; they either become therapy sessions with like-minded partisans or devolve into shouting matches against the other side.”
- Thad Kousser, professor of political science and department chair at UC San Diego.
Part of me was astonished at the backlash.
How hard is it to support the idea that men should set good examples for their children, stand up for women, and refrain from sexually harassing anyone on the street or at work?
But let’s be real - it’s human nature to double-down on our identities and convictions when challenged.
(Anyone who’s had to suffer through a political discussion with family at the dinner table, or *shudder* in the comments section of a heated Facebook post knows the feeling.)
When confronted with our worst habits, or assumed stereotypes about us, we naturally bristle with defensiveness. It feels like a personal attack. When it happens in such a one-way medium as an advertisement, it can feel like we are not being given a chance to defend ourselves.
We feel voiceless.
And so, off to Twitter we go, to say f*ck you, Gillette, f*ck you for supporting “anti-men” sentiments. Not all men are this bad. Not all men are assholes. Not all men. Not all men. Not all men. On and on with this chorus until we feel justified in our anger.
When challenged directly in this fashion, asked to confront the worst of their behavior, many men (and some women) responded, as social media allows us to do, instantly and in an emotionally-charged, defensive, reactive way.
Proving the point.
Unfortunately, lacking much critical thought or empathy, these responses exhibited exactly why the #metoo movement exists: to call attention to real and uncomfortable instances of dangerous, toxic behavior in a world where few are held accountable for it.
These individuals who spoke up in anger demonstrated an incredible lack of self-awareness or integrity to admit that maybe, just maybe, the depiction of men in the ad was not entirely made-up.
That just maybe there was some accountability to be had.
How does it feel?
Now, I have to laugh, because the crux of the backlash, from where I sit, is that these men feel uncomfortable being shamed by an ad.
Yet, ads for decades have shamed women. We’re used to it.
What these men are feeling is an experience women have had viewing advertisements for much of our lives. See Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly for hundreds of examples.
Our new normal
Part of me is resigned to the fate that we now exist in a world of marketing corporate morality, where brands in commoditized industries like razor blades for men feel that the only frontier left to compete on is that made up of the values they portray through their marketing, in an attempt to connect with consumers on a deeper level.
They know that many consumers won’t ever see the ad live, say, on a TV media buy — but look how many are talking about it. The viral nature of these ads means if brands take a position, the benefit of exposure is there.
Part of me is glad Gillette is using its reach for good - elevating an important message to millions. Another part of me is rolling my eyes that a razor company is advising anyone how to live their lives. Alas, this is the time in which we live. Lines are blurred between CEO and activist. (See Patagonia and Nike.)
I’ve written in the past about the danger of making it seem like the world is more ready to embrace progress than it really is (I call it an illusion of progress).
As an example of where we actually are in the real world, just heed the end of Gillette’s microsite, which presents us with an ironic call-to action.
“Follow how men are taking action!”
Unfortunately, the action taken by many men in response to this campaign serves to remind us how far we have to go to combat the very real issue of toxic masculinity.
The Good Men Projects defines toxic masculinity as:
"a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away."
Personally, I’m not convinced corporate morality is the best solution to this very real problem. But, ads like this are certainly better than the alternative.
Now, gird up your loins, boys, for International Women’s Day is only 49 days away.
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