Gillette: the best an ad can be?
BY NATALIA PAUNIC
STUDENT AT MCGILL FACULTY OF LAW
The year is 2019 and toxic masculinity just made a new enemy. And that enemy, readers of Contours, is Procter & Gamble. The new two-minute ad for Gillette puts a new spin on Gillette’s old slogan “The Best a Man Can Get,” by challenging gender norms and addressing bullying and sexual harassment. To support its new “The Best a Man Can Be” campaign, Gillette also pledged to donate $3 million over three years to non-profit organizations that encourage men to “achieve their personal best.”
I believe that, from a feminist perspective, this ad merits analysis. The first order of business, however, is a preliminary one. A valid concern levied at the ad is how genuine a message about toxic masculinity can be when it comes from a profit-seeking corporation, especially one that sells pink razors at double the price. Granted, P&G is not a company to shy away from social engagement (see: “I’d Rather Get Paid” for Secret, #LikeaGirl for Always, and “Thank You, Mom,” P&G for the 2018 Winter Olympics). The Gillette ad, then, is part of P&G’s larger strategy of emotional branding, designed to engage with social topics such as sexism and prejudice and, in the process, tug on your heartstrings a little. Personally, I am a proponent of subtlety in ads, probably because of a long obsession with AMC’s Mad Men and since, generally, ads are least effective when they tell people what to do. However, market studies have indicated that “social good” ads help build brand loyalty and are ultimately good for the company purse. In the case at hand, Gillette has openly admitted that the ad is meant to attract a new, younger market. This certainly makes the Gillette ad seem more disingenuous, and fits it squarely within the current trend of tearjerker advertising. It is also fun to note that this ad directed at men mirrors the countless campaigns aimed at affirming women, such as the long-running Dove “Real Beauty” campaign. Consequently, for me, a natural part of watching this ad was smirking at a corporation’s dogged determination to prove that yes, YOU can change the world. And a vital part of that is buying soap or shaving gel, or perhaps texting about mental health one day per year. However, cynicism should not detract from the work of the director of the ad, Kim Gehrig, or from the positive externalities of corporate social responsibility.
With “The Best a Man Can Be,” Gillette entered into the thorny debate surrounding gender roles and feminism by highlighting the pervasive problem of toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is defined as a set of behaviours that associate “manliness” with physical strength, hyper-competitiveness, and sexual aggression. Therefore, a “real man” suppresses his emotions and uses violence or intimidation to reinforce his power over those weaker than him. This pressure to be a “tough guy” is often at the root of domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and fistfights at your local bar. The ad addresses not only how the reinforcement of this hegemonic ideal of manliness is detrimental to the status of women, but also how it is harmful for men. As such, the ad concludes that men need to look in the mirror (quite literally, and preferably while shaving with Gillette products), and challenge themselves to be better.
To me, the underlying message of Gillette’s short film is that as our society changes, men need to reflect on the status quo and hold each other accountable for bad behaviour. In doing so, they have the power to be agents of positive social change. Elsewhere on the Internet, I heard other things. “The ad is liberal propaganda.” “Masculinity is under attack.” “Gillette thinks being a man is bad.” “Gillette is shaming all men due to the behaviour of a few ‘bad apples’.” “Let boys be boys, let men be damn men.” Apart from the fact that reactions such as these reinforce Gillette’s point more than anything, I imagine that the ad’s detractors prefer the 1989 Gillette ad, which showcases very manly things like Wall Street, weight-lifting, and women running into men’s arms.
The easiest way to respond to these criticisms is to reinforce the idea that toxic masculinity is a systemic problem that requires a systemic remedy. It does not start, or end, with one man. Nor does it only concern overt violence or sexual assault. As the ad rightly indicates, it includes cat calling, “bro culture,” and the infernal “smile, sweetie!”. Toxic masculinity, like other forms of pervasive social ills, is reproduced through obvious as well as subtle gestures. For example, studies have shown that subtle sexist or homophobic behaviour contributes to unsafe environments and increases the risk of escalation. The ad, then, does not point fingers. It simply communicates that hypermasculinity and the Harvey Weinsteins of the world are symptomatic of an environment that is permissive of bad behaviour. I imagine that to change, some men might have to take a good hard look at themselves. For the vast majority of others, though, change may simply involve keeping an eye on the behaviour of men around them, or becoming conscious of how they themselves reproduce harmful stereotypes. I might add that this is an equally valid message for any human being, man or not.
Sure, the ad is a little corny. However, I did feel a twinge when a woman is interrupted by her male colleague (“What I actually think she’s trying to say…”). To me, the ad is a signal, more than anything, of a society for which action against discrimination has reached a critical mass. So while the ad may not be perfect, it has certainly succeeded in starting a much-needed conversation. After all, advertising is meant to reflect society. And for those men who think that Gillette is trying to make you throw out your barbecues, you’re missing the point.
 Title courtesy of Jodie Côté-Marshall.
 This gem is brought to you by Piers Morgan’s Twitter. See Piers Morgan, “I've used @Gillette razors my entire adult life but 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.” (14 January 2019 at 11:12), online: Twitter <twitter.com/piersmorgan/status/1084891133757587456> [perma.cc/LNS7-WARU].
 Deborah L Brake, “Back to Basics: Excavating the Sex Discrimination Roots of Campus Sexual Assault”, (2017) 6 Tenn J Race Gender & Soc Just 7 at 9, 34.