The new Gillette ad has an uplifting and positive message but its refusal to pander has stirred a backlash, writes Laura Swinton
How’s that for timing? Gillette shares its call for men to step up, be their best selves and call out toxic masculinity. The fetid, bacterial undergrowth of the Internet, paradoxically both persistent and yet fragile, lets out a strangulated yodel. I think, 'well it’s an important message but could it be a tad condescending? A bit down on men?'
And as I leave the train station that evening and walk past the bus stop and a gang of three young men – at a guess I’d say they’re about 17 years old – literally hiss loudly at me, shouting ‘hey Babe!’. With my headphones in, I pretend not to hear them – the hissing and shouting gets louder. And later – much later – as the embarrassment and anger sink into resignation, I think, ‘ugh, maybe there really is no such thing as too heavy handed’.
So, let this serve as a head’s up. This hot take comes with a hefty helping of I’m-so-over-this-shit.
First off, some background. Grey New York creates a film for Gillette calling on men to step up, take a stance against toxic behaviour and set an example for young boys. Men’s rights activists have a shit fit. Piers Morgan surprises no one by weighing in.
There’s a lot to break down here. This isn’t the first brand to try and reframe masculinity in the face of open-minded Gen Z and the #MeToo movement. Hell, it’s not even the first brand in its category to do so. Axe swung from teenaged horndogs lusting after celestial beings to a celebration of individuality and inner confidence with ‘Find Your Magic’ from 72andSunny. Last July, Isobar Nordics released a low-key beauty of a film for Phillips that saw a pair of friends chat about facial hair, self-image and DIY in a way that felt modern and healthy and normal. We’re seeing similar trends in other stereotypically male-targeted categories like beer too.
So why has Gillette incurred the wrath of the ‘manosphere’ trolls? Well, this time it’s an execution that acknowledges the bad behaviour as well as celebrating the good. It also shows how toxic masculinity is just as damaging to boys and men, as well as women and girls. It’s not pandering to delicate egos. It’s not prioritising hurt feelings above the bigger picture. In other words, it’s stopped faking orgasms.
Many of the objections on YouTube subscribe to the #NotAllMen school of missing the point. Objectors are tuning into the criticism over the hope – protesting, as Shakespeare might observe, too much. And of course, the men who are not bothered by it, who don’t have a problem with the message, are not tumbling online to shout about it. Comparisons with the now infamous Kendall Jenner ad are off the mark too – this is a campaign that’s had plenty of men and women looking over it.
The next question is the wisdom of getting involved in the first place. If Gillette is looking to position itself as a more youthful brand and to cultivate the next generation of consumers, then there’s plenty of research that shows that Generation Z has a more open-minded and fluid view of gender roles – though the creative itself feels aimed at polo shirt-wearing dads. But then, they're the people in a position to sshape the future. In terms of authenticity, it’s a brand that’s tended to stick to the fresh-out-the-shower GQ model and CG steel mold of male grooming, so I’m curious to see whether it will stick to this outlook and tonal shift going forward.
Like the controversial and impactful Nike ad starring Colin Kaepernick last year, the Gillette film is an anniversary ad. ‘The Best Men Can Be’ is a nod to the 30th birthday of the slogan ‘The Best a Man Can Get’, while Nike was celebrating 30 years of ‘Just Do It’. Nike, of course, experienced its now-fabled $6 billion bump following its Kaepernick ad, gleefully shedding sneaker-burning idiots from its consumer base. Gillette, I’m sure even they’d admit, doesn’t quite have the pop cache of Nike so it’ll be interesting to see where this campaign takes the brand financially.
However it pans out for the brand and whatever you make of the execution itself, it was always going to be a risky move. From an industry perspective, that at least is worth backing. There’s no way that the pile on won’t have been predicted but they went for it anyway. And if the depiction of and conversation around masculinity is something that brands want to engage with, then there are tricky topics that come with the territory.
Personally, I’m less interested in the ad itself than the reaction it has generated. Especially now. Really, if the very worst you have to contend with in life is the suggestion that you might have to occasionally call out bad behaviour then life really is not so bad, is it?