Gillette, Toxic Masculinity, and Capitalism: Are "Woke" Brands Really a Good Thing?

Politics Features Gillette
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Gillette, Toxic Masculinity, and Capitalism: Are "Woke" Brands Really a Good Thing?

Gillette’s Sunday release of its latest commercial, “We Believe,” has stoked the ever-present embers of debate surrounding commodity activism, and it doesn’t look like the flames are dying down anytime soon. The nearly two-minute ad, which dives bravely into the throes of the #MeToo movement, spotlights toxic masculinity in its many forms while imploring viewers—presumably its consumer base—to think more deeply about their own words and actions.

“Is this the best a man can get?” the voiceover asks its audience as clips of boys wrestling and bullying one another, a man speaking condescendingly for a woman in a business meeting, and young men catcalling play in the background. The ad then shows snippets of newscasters calling out the #MeToo movement and honing in on toxic masculinity as the culprit. It concludes with scenes of men keeping other men in check and championing the strength of their daughters, all with the intention of providing positive examples for their boys, the next generation of men.

The controversy surrounding the ad is just as intriguing to observe as the commercial itself, which addresses many of the conversations already being had around some men’s bad behavior. Celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, Ava DuVernay and Rainn Wilson have come forward on social media to praise the spot, calling it “powerful and much needed.” Other public figures, like Piers Morgan, are appalled by the ad’s message, which they read to be anti-male and totally condescending.

“I don’t seek to diminish the importance of the #MeToo campaign which has shone an important and long overdue light on completely unacceptable sexual harassment, bullying and abuse,” the veteran TV journalist and one-time America’s Got Talent host wrote in an op-ed for The Daily Mail. “But why should all men be tarred with the same monstrous brush in the way this Gillette campaign sets out to do?”

Morgan is far from alone in his reaction. Loads of other men are coming forward with similar sentiments, flooding social media with at-times sexist and racist comments bemoaning the emasculation of men and warning of a crusade against their gender. The “Boycott Gillette” hashtag is currently trending on Twitter, with gents expressing their preference for Gillette’s competitors, the Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s, while sharing photos and videos of themselves throwing their Gillette razors into the trash.

That the commercial has succeeded in sparking a debate is undeniable. Gillette is probably seeing a resurgence in Google search statistics that it hasn’t seen since it debuted its Mach 3 razors back in the late 90s.

But the polarizing nature of the commercial tugs at a bigger question, one that extends beyond identity politics: is it, and should it be, the responsibility of brands like Gillette to take a political stand in an age of commodity activism? And what distinguishes a “successful” campaign from one that’s DOA? Does it have to do with the audience the ad is trying to reach, the message the brand is trying to deliver, the product being advertised, or just the general mood of the moment?

What has historically determined whether or not a commercial hits its mark is, for brands, how much product it will move as a direct result of its ads. Companies like Proctor & Gamble, which owns Gillette in addition to other products like Always tampons and Secret deodorant (both of which also released their own “woke” campaigns in recent years), are still, at the end of the day, multibillion-dollar companies. So even if they champion a cause or shine a light on a societal issue, their hope is still invariably that their social justice messaging will help their bottom line. It’s a bit harder to believe that any for-profit company would willingly sacrifice paying customers by pivoting toward a social cause. It’s not improbable, just unlikely, given that it feels counterproductive to the capitalistic society we live in.

Or maybe there’s a different pivot in mind—toward a new consumer base.

And this is why studying consumers’ reactions to the Gillette commercial is so endlessly fascinating, because regardless of the brand’s good intentions, what seems to matter more to consumers in this day and age is not how woke a company is, but why it’s purporting to be, and what actions (beyond virtue signaling) it’s taking to actually address the issues it is co-opting for its own gain. This, it feels, is what will ultimately make or break a brand. Authenticity sells. But is there any way to separate good intentions from capital gain when it comes to commercial brands?

“This is an important conversation happening, and as a company that encourages men to be their best, we feel compelled to both address it and take action of our own,” Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette’s brand director for North America, told The Wall Street Journal. “We are taking a realistic look at what’s happening today, and aiming to inspire change by acknowledging that the old saying ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ is not an excuse.”

Additionally, on its website, Gillette states that it will be donating $1 million a year for the next three years to nonprofit programs “designed to inspire, educate, and help men of all ages achieve their personal ‘best’ and become role models for the next generation.”

Everything Bhalla is saying, and that Gillette is doing, is on-point, but the message has to be taken with a huge grain of salt given that Gillette as a company has been profiting from depicting men as hyper-masculine for decades, with TV spots featuring sleek graphics likening its razors to fighter jets. It was a product of, and contributed to, the very heteronormative patriarchy that it is now looking to help dismantle, so it’s only natural that its sudden pivot to be a part of the resistance is met with skepticism. It’s difficult to walk the fine line between woke messaging and tone-deaf mimicry, and it’s even more difficult to recover from an advertising faux pas. Gillette, for instance, is currently getting hit with a deluge of disgruntled customers hurling the “Get Woke Go Broke” hashtag their way.

But this is a tightrope that brands will likely have to keep walking from here on out, if current trends are any indication. In a January 2018 study, Sprout Social found that two-thirds of consumers surveyed thought it was at least somewhat important for brands to take a stand on social issues. So it seems likely that more and more brands will start taking the risk of getting political in hopes of a positive return on investment, and the results will definitely be mixed. Nike saw a spike in sales following its much-discussed commercial featuring former NFL player Colin Kaepernick (tagline: “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything”). Conversely, Pepsi was lampooned for its cringe-worthy 2017 ad starring Kendall Jenner, which capitalized on the #BlackLivesMatter movement, though sales reportedly weren’t impacted in the end. And with the Super Bowl right around the corner, inevitably more will try, and some will fail.

At a time when the personal is undeniably political, and consumers have myriad choices to make when it comes to how they spend their cold, hard-earned cash, brands are trying to keep up by meeting consumers where they’re at. The unfortunate reality, however, is that though companies can have the best intentions, the criteria with which the general public will judge them demands a kind of accountability that many for-profit brands aren’t used to dealing with. “Wokeness” is a state of being, not a temporary marketing gimmick to be exploited, after all. Which begs the question: “Is this the best a brand can get?”