Gillette's recent commercial sends a strong message: men need to take a long look in the mirror and reassess how they perceive masculinity and respond to sexism. For some viewers, however, this message is lost on them due to the corporate nature and profit motives of the ad. That's a shame.
"We Believe: The Best Men Can Be," as the advertisement is titled, has caused a storm of controversy since its online debut last Sunday. The ad shows how many men have used the "boys will be boys" attitude towards masculinity to justify being bystanders to acts of bullying and sexual harassment by males before calling on those men to be better and to teach other men and boys to take an active stand against the toxic aspects of outdated perceptions of masculinity. The ad has since angered many people on the Internet, with some going as far as to boycott Gillette for what they perceive as an assault on masculinity. Many pieces have already addressed this and I'm aware that this opinion is not new.
However, there is another reason some viewers denounce the ad: Gillette is simply exploiting the #MeToo movement for its own financial gain and is not sincere in its supposed desire for change. And to an extent, they're not entirely wrong.
According to a recent NBC News article, the rise of competitors in the shaving products industry has caused Gillette's share of the industry to shrink from 70% in 2010 to 54% in 2016. Obviously, Gillette had to find some way to boost its profile in order to fight the trend; by directly addressing the more toxic effects of outdated perceptions of masculinity and igniting such a controversy online, it has done just that. The axiom "any attention is good attention" comes to mind.
This is not the first time that big brands have tried to piggyback off sometimes controversial activist messages to boost their products' profiles. Nike's "Just Do It" ad line in 2018 - which featured former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the National Anthem at football games to protest racial injustice - is the most well-known advertising campaign of this type. Other companies have made similar moves, such as Pepsi when it not-so-discreetly referenced the Black Lives Matter movement in a notorious 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner.
And Proctor & Gamble - Gillette's parent company since 2007 - has a history of producing ads that address gender stereotypes; when advertising its line of Always tampons in 2014, for example, the company asked teenage participants to characterize what it meant to "run like a girl."
These sorts of advertisements have become commonplace enough to warrant their own term: commodity activism. Coined in 2012 by Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser, professors at the City University of New York and the London School of Economics respectively, commodity activism refers to the employment of rising political or activist sentiments to garner support or attention for a particular brand. As Banet-Weiser put it in a 2018 Vox article, "The use of brands to "sell" dissent is not a new business strategy. Individual consumers act politically by purchasing particular brands over others in a competitive marketplace, where specific brands are attached to political aims and goals."
In the era of the #MeToo movement, when large portions of American society are actively speaking out against sexual assault, harassment, violence against women, and the "boys will be boys" attitude, the Gillette ad is clearly the latest example of commodity activism. Profit motives are indeed driving the creation of this ad.
And yet, it would be a shame to let Gillette's behind-the-scenes motives negate from the powerful message of the ad.
Regardless of its corporate nature, the ad still unequivocally tells male viewers that using masculinity as justification for permitting sexism, bullying, and harassment is unacceptable. It tries to show that being a good man is about building other people up, not using one's gender to put other people down. In a time when so many core institutions in American society ranging from the media and entertainment industry to the Supreme Court of the United States are shaken by serious findings and allegations of sex-related abuses by some of the men in their ranks, the message of the ad very much needs to be heard.
In some ways, the fact that the message is coming from a brand as well-known and respected as Gillette is what makes the ad special. Having served as a leading provider of men's products for over a century, the Gillette has a special connection the male consumers that other brands do not. In other words, it means a lot when the product that has called itself "the best a man can get" for so long calls on men themselves to be better. Doing so was risky, and the brand has faced online backlash from many men that are part of its customer base for choosing to run the ad. Yet, millions of men heard the message because of Gillette's unique position.
So yes, the Gillette ad is corporate PR. But that is no excuse for ignoring a valuable message that men, and society as a whole, need to hear: neither one's gender one's sex gives them permission to hurt or demean other people that are not like them. We would do better to heed such advice.