Has Gillette made a mistake? Marketing meets politics

So apparently some men out there are throwing their toys out of the pram because of Gillette’s ‘The Best Men Can Be’ advert.

Gillette dares to suggest the rising awareness of toxic masculinity, and its harm is an opportunity for growth. Perhaps (GASP!) for change, or even a commitment worth making. That’s just too much, man!

However, some men are raging, because, you know, #notallmen.

So let’s sort this thing out first, shall we? THEN we can discuss whether it’s sensible marketing…

Are we THAT fragile?

At the end of the day, it’s about who we stand with. We should side with what is right instead of worrying about hurting the emotions of those poor innocent men. Because we have a more important job at hand here which is stopping the harm — both to women/girls and to men/boys. Silencing the debate with any variation on #notallmen holds back that change. That silence is what allows the harm to keep happening.

‘But it’s so negative’. Is it? It includes positive behaviours and is geared toward positive alternatives and commitment to change. The advert obviously offers constructive criticism. If it were only positive it wouldn’t generate debate.

This advert simply points to a better way. We should see it as “calling in” rather than “calling out”. As calling out goes, this ad is remarkably gentle. You could argue this isn’t even focused on toxic masculinity; it’s about not being silent about toxic masculinity.

‘It is a cynical advert, pushing ‘woke’ buttons to guilt men into a buying their brand.’
Yes. Gillette is out to promote their brand and sell razors. They could have done so in many ways, but they chose to take the risk with this. To me, that proves it’s genuine at least on some level. But even if they are cynical and leveraging a cultural moment — so what? It can still have a positive side-effect.

But IT IS an advert, so let’s talk about strategic marketing.

The bigger picture

Taking a step back from this specific advert, marketing communications often include representations of society. That’s unavoidable. It’s fundamental to storytelling. Stories intended to “sell stuff” are no exception. So we should aspire for those representations to be responsible and sustainable.
For decades and still, quite often, marketing and advertising were happy to push the most toxic buttons of gender and other cultural norms. Pander to fears and insecurities in order to sell. The beauty and grooming industry is one of the worse offenders. Here we have a better way.
Moreover, it’s not just about the explicitly “woke” ads, like this one. It can be small things. For example, more diverse people/norms (Doing something as subtle as showing the father at the kitchen worktop in John-Lewis’ ‘Tiny Dancer’ ad).

I wrote before about the social imperative for brands to promote a new masculinity. However, this is, in fact, part of a broader issue I have dealt with in the past, about marketing owning the power stemming from its cultural ubiquity and realising its actions have an impact on culture (just like they do on the environment) — cultural sustainability if you will.

This is where the industry should head, not because of ‘brand purpose’, which is often implemented in questionable ways, but because of our duty as people putting representations into the wider world. (on brand purpose I generally agree with Mark Ritson, but I think this is the rare case where he’s missed the bigger point.)

But will it help Gillette?

Will it sell more razors? Yes, I believe in the long-term it will. That advert seems more specifically about shaking up a brand that was dating rapidly and risking slipping relevance (fuelled by shifting grooming preferences, especially for young men). Positioning it as a brand for men who believe in better, it takes a stand and leads a debate about the most crucial issue men are facing today. That urgency, even if not a simple ego boost like the (great) Nike ad Ritson is comparing this one with, is compelling when measured against the factors of Integrity, Relevance and Difference — the makings of a solid positioning, as well as ‘top of mind’ power. So yes, brand loyalty and improved sales will come later.

I bet this is just a first step of a significant campaign and I hope Gillette won’t let itself get shouted down.

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