Skip to main content

There was a time when the main aim of an ad was to sell a product in the most audience-friendly way possible. Sparking boycotts would have been an advertisers’ nightmare. But as Nike’s Colin Kaepernick’s ad showed, advertisers are now unafraid to risk controversy. They may be seeking just that.
Following Nike’s lead now comes Gillette’s ‘We Believe’. The concept of this advert was that the #MeToo movement has shown that the definition of what is considered ‘acceptable male behaviour’, generated by decades of media stereotypes and inappropriate role models, needs to change. That men must stand up to what is considered to be ‘toxic masculinity’ and show the young boys of today the right way to act.

The brand now questions its own world famous slogan, asking “Is this really the best a man can get?”

At one point, bullies chasing a boy rip through a screen projecting an old Gillette advert. It seems that Gillette is turning a critical eye on itself. The brand always encouraged men to be the best they can be, but it was mostly based on career success and physical strength, more than strength of character. Rather unsurprisingly, this ad has flared up controversy worldwide and sparked debates over whether this is a positive message or blatantly sexist, one that tars all men with the same brush.

The ad was viewed over 11 million times, a remarkable number given its only been on 3 days at the time of writing. However, the comment feed is almost exclusively negative, accusing it of being anti-male. A vast number of commenters pledged to switch brands. Many repeat the same catchphrase: ‘Get Woke, Go Broke’, aimed at companies pushing progressive messages. (Ironic, given Nike’s sales shot up 31% thanks to the publicity of their ‘woke’ Kaepernick commercial).
Scorn isn’t just coming from anonymous keyboard warriors. Piers Morgan, host of the popular ‘Good Morning Britain’ breakfast show, took offence. Morgan tweeted “This absurd virtue-signalling PC guff may drive me away to a company less eager to fuel the current pathetic global assault on masculinity. Let boys be damn boys. Let men be damn men”.
However, many have come out in support of the campaign. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, wrote “This commercial isn’t anti-male. It’s pro-humanity. And it demonstrates that character can step up to change conditions”.

On a personal note, I find it hard to empathise with the view that this is ‘anti-male’. The advert is criticising inappropriate behaviour that is often excused, wrongly, as ‘masculine’ behaviour. This can be physical fighting and cat-calling. If the critics think that the commercial is anti-male than they hold men to a very low standard.
The commercial is simply asking men to stand up for what’s right and break the cycles of violence and harassment that have been permitted for too long. If you are a man who believes that men have been given a bad reputation by the #MeToo movement, then counter that by setting the example. Show others what ‘being a man’ really stands for… As actress Whoopi Goldberg expressed on talk show ‘The View’, “What they’re basically saying is ‘Don’t Be a Jerk.’”

However, that’s not to say there isn’t an argument to be made against ‘virtue-signalling’ in commercials. One should question Gillette’s ultimate motive in creating this TV commercial. Do they genuinely want to make men think about how they can be better? Or did they purposefully create the ad for the sake of controversy, knowing that it would light a wildfire of free publicity? Does Gillette care more about the cause or the headlines?
Sure, Gillette state that they are donating 1 million a year for the next three years to non-profit organizations aimed at educating men on how to achieve their best. However, a total of 3 Million dollars is a pretty minuscule sum for a company worth 17.1 Billion. The value of the free publicity the ad generated will likely to be vastly greater than Gillette’s donations.
Sarah Banet-Weiser, professor of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, says this:
“The Gillette ad is part of a much longer tradition of what I’ve talked about as commodity activism, where political messages are harnessed to boost the reputation of the company and to sell products”.

One may see this as capitalism hiding behind a veneer of moral righteousness, and there may be truth in that. One must acknowledge, though, that creating an advert that asks its target demographic to be self-critical is a very risky move; the consequences of which have yet to be seen. And when a world-famous brand takes such a risk to promote a positive message, that is something to be applauded. Commercials aren’t there to just plug products. Commercials can be a statement about what the brand stands for. Gillette is willing to lose the customers that don’t share their values, but they will attract those who do.


by Bruce Micallef Eynaud