Letter to the editor: The new Gillette ad proves social justice is for sale

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By Chad Cooper

“Seen the new Gillette ad?”

That’s the message I received last night from a friend.

By this point, if you’ve consumed any media in the last 24 hours, you’ve probably seen — or at least heard the debate about — the commercial from the shaving company.

The nearly two-minute ad draws on the #MeToo movement and purports to challenge “toxic masculinity.”

The opinions and backlash have been swift and numerous. Some are saying the ad is bad because it’s too political and paints a broad misogynistic stroke over all men. Some are saying it’s great for taking a stand and confronting a serious social issue.

Both sides are wrong.

This particular Gillette ad is bad because it’s an ad from Gillette. And its badness is sinister.

Let’s talk about the commercial. After the aforementioned message from my friend, I watched the video online. The production certainly has the sheen of a professional ad. The content challenges obvious wrongs, ranging from bullying to sexual harassment. The overall message is powerfully delivered. To any half-ass savvy marketing professional, this sounds like a win, and that’s precisely the problem.

This seems like a good place to take a brief aside to mention that I work in marketing. That’s probably why my friend sent me the message about the Gillette ad in the first place. Marketing and advertising has been maligned for decades as a purveyor of propaganda to boost consumerism. It’s also an industry that has widely employed fledgling artists and writers — offering a living wage to do work that involves at least a modicum of creativity. This is all to say that my relationship with marketing and advertising is complicated, and while I mostly work with nonprofits, I grow increasingly disillusioned with the field as a whole when I see ads like the one Gillette just shilled out.

There’s been a recent wave of these sort of social-justice ads, from Pepsi’s tone-deaf and comically bad Kendall Jenner commercial to Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign. Social justice certainly seems en vogue for huge companies and advertising agencies, and that’s not good.

A corporate ad can’t advance social justice. True advocates don’t perform a risk-reward revenue analysis to decide whether to confront societal wrongs. Gillette is a subsidiary of global behemoth Procter & Gamble. They’re here to make money. Co-opting a movement to make that money is about as dirty as it gets. It makes the Marlboro Man look like a beacon of morality by comparison.

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The debate over this particular ad will probably rage for a few more days and then die out, as all stories generally do in our social media milieu. I can also guarantee that another company with another ad agency will invariably come out with another social justice ad. When it happens, I’ll ask myself the same question as when I finished watching the Gillette ad: Since when is social justice for sale?

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  1. I hear this argument: a multimillion dollar company does market research and takes polls to create an ad that piggybacks on a societal movement with the intent of, as always, selling its product.
    I ask this then: would it have been better if Gillette hadn’t made this advertisement, hadn’t voiced this stance? Continued making ads that propagate toxic masculinity? How are companies, run by individuals who have stated their intent to join in the dialog, supposed to interact if not thru their most prominent vehicle which’ll reach millions of people: their advertising? According to the WSJ, Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette’s brand director for North America stated “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. 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.”
    Maybe they don’t need our thanks, but i think anyone, individual or company, willing to make a stand for progress and change these days is alright in my book, even if they still have a lot to learn about the rhetoric.

    Social justice isn’t for sale here, it’s razor blades, and barely even those in this commercial. I feel we need to move past this idea that all corporations are insidious, that everything they do furthers their agenda, and accept that they could be run by people that may want to help real change happen. I feel your cynicism about having ‘social justice’ in advertising is the same cynicism (and toxic culture) that has men complaining about the ‘social justice’ in comic books right now, claiming that their funny books shouldn’t be pushing ideas of diversity, trans rights, or post #MeToo rhetoric. By saying that Gillette is clearly manipulative in co-opting a social movement (which right now needs all the continuous in-your-face broadcasting if we’re going to progress) then either look at what you do for a living and agree it’s the same thing, that with every advertisement you work on is pushing an agenda, and try your best to further this very just cause or step out of the way.

    1. Shane,

      You act as if there were only two options: create an ad tied to the movement or “propagate toxic masculinity.”

      Gillette could have created an ad that simply sold their razors, and I’m sure they have the minds to find a creative way to do that that doesn’t co-opt an important social issue or reinforce toxic masculinity.

      Gillette used the #MeToo movement for attention. They jumped on because they knew they would draw eyeballs to their brand. It’s simultaneously shrewd and shady, which is why it’s insidious.

      “Social justice isn’t for sale here, it’s razor blades, and barely even those in this commercial.”

      Your above excerpt strikes at why social advertising can’t be social activism: the primary motive is always to sell, at least in corporate advertising. If a non-profit had teamed with an ad agency to produce a commercial like this, there wouldn’t be an issue, because the non-profit’s primary goal is the social cause. Also, I’d argue that using social justice to sell razors puts a price on the social movement, and it’s a cheapened price. And, as referenced in the piece, companies like Pepsi and Nike have also jumped on to use social issues to highlight their products. So, in that respect, social justice is for sale, as far as those corporations are concerned.

      Finally, to your point about confronting the fact that all advertising is pushing an agenda: I don’t think that fact alone is nefarious. Ads are all out to sell; we’ve already established that. When they do so through clever concepts or clear statements of a product’s value, that’s part of the job and rather harmless. But, when they use a social cause as a thin veil for their true intent, that’s morally compromising and potentially very harmful.

      1. Chad,

        I think it’s unfair for you to say that it cheapens the message. It implies that those of us who had a deep emotional reaction to it, as I had, have somehow been deluded by their ‘insidious’ ploy. It also implies that the movement CAN be cheapened by an ad campaign rather than, at worst, see it as a poor attempt to connect with the movement and could use some help with the language. To see it as more grist for the mill towards an ever evolving, beautiful goal.

        How does being cynical about this ad help the movement more than the ad itself? What are you doing to help this movement with your ads or, since you don’t believe that social advertising cannot be social movement, your art or your actions? Why take the piss out of something that many people consciously worked for in their effort to help bring the conversation to the foreground?

        Good and Evil are fictional constructs. The belief that corporations have insidious ulterior motives starts down the road of conspiracies. These mentalities aren’t serving us to move forward. They’re causing us to complain about the muck rather than shoveling ourselves out of it.

        Let’s rather assume we have new allies in this fight. Press P&G to go further, to give to charitable causes and host progressive events, have trans men and women in their ads. This is just the beginning for them and for a lot of us. Now is the time to hold people and corporation accountable and to go further into this bright future hand in hand.

        1. Shane,

          The idea of advertising cheapening messages and themes is firmly established. This is the reason why many musicians and artists won’t allow their work to be used for commercials and products. They realize it takes art filled with meaning and nuanced messages and degrades it to a jingle to sell bullshit. Chuck D and Ani DiFranco articulated this nicely in the documentary “Money for Nothing.”

          I respect your perspective, and I’m not here to attack your personal response to the ad or the resonance of the ad on you. I simply think it’s worth a larger discussion about motive versus mission.

          “How does being cynical about this ad help the movement more than the ad itself?”

          The answer is that it puts the attention–all of the attention–back on the movement instead of the ad. I see that Gillette has a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club. That’s great. If Gillette wants to combine corporate advertising with social causes, perhaps they should have produced a nearly two-minute commercial highlighting the Boys & Girls Club, then inserted their name and the web address at the end. That’s how you put the mission up front. I guarantee you that approach would have garnered just as much attention for Gillette while also putting a spotlight on a fantastic organization. Instead, Gillette decided to use it as a footnote because they wanted all of the attention.

          1. Don’t worry, I don’t feel attacked.

            In lieu of not getting a response of how we could make a better scenario, I’m calling it quits.

  2. Chad – I think yours is one of the better pieces I’ve seen on analyzing this Gillette ad. To add to what you’ve already nicely said about “social justice for sale” is the feeling that this seems very contrived. The brand has always stood for manliness, along the same lines as Old Spice or Marlboro. Our fathers and grandfathers used this company’s products, and took them to war. Our fathers taught us to shave with these products, making this brand was part of our rites of passage to manhood. So let’s just say that this is a brand with deep roots.

    This sudden, dramatic departure from that core brand throws a lot of men off, hence some of the uproar.

    But, at the same time, it feels disingenuous when the brand still has its name on a football stadium. Could anyone mount an argument that there is any more “toxically masculine” sport in this country than NFL football? We’ve certainly seen the league look the other way far too often on player behavior that even the most neanderthal of us men understand is unacceptable. It certainly looks like a “jump on the social justice bandwagon” tactic when there isn’t a mention or change in strategy with that other pillar of the brand. One now wonders, which “brand” are you, now?

    The other thing that troubles me and makes this look more like striking a fashionable pose, rather than a real change in brand or company culture is how they think it’s good strategy to, as one comic put it a couple days ago, “to dump on their core customers”? As a fellow marketer, I have always believed that good marketing (including advertising) pulls customers and prospective customers to a different or better place. Great marketing is inspirational. Why insult all men, instead of having a more inspirational message?

    The preachiness of this ad is why men don’t like it. I also don’t accept the cop-out that the Gillette folks have taken of “well, if you’re offended by the ad, then it’s because you’re part of the problem.” I don’t accept that. I don’t accept it because it doesn’t square with where other parts of our enlightened society has evolved. A great example is workplace harassment. The law says that it doesn’t matter what you meant, it only matters how the recipient of your workplace comment takes it that counts. In the old days, a woman who complained about an unwanted comment was often told to lighten up and get on the team, or told that she somehow invited it. So in Gillette taking that attitude of you either agree or you are a deplorable, they seem to have gone back in time, and adds to the disingenuous feeling of this ad. Whether or not all men make the conscious connection to those other societal norms, it seems like many men have some perception that it is somehow “unfair”.

    I believe these additional aspects further expose Gillette’s attempt to purchase and jump on a social justice bandwagon. That’s giving them credit for being a little too cavalier with their marketing tactics. Or, one might also interpret this more darkly.

    As a final comment for Shane, I think the way to make this better, either in this case, or others in the future, is getting a better understanding of the audience and finding a way to inspire, instead of preach.

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