Opinion | Finance

The new Gillette commercial: The best an ad can get

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The recent commercial from Gillette, titled "Toxic Masculinity" has sparked a great deal of discussion and controversy. Unlike many debates over the merits of particular ad messaging or brand communication decision, there aren't simply two sides or easy love it/hate it reactions.

This one seems to be a bit more complex and people's reactions more emotional and nuanced. On its face, the ad, which is ostensibly targeted at the typical male Gillette user, is quite simply beseeching men to be "better" and to work toward the goal of being their best.

This is similar in spirit to, say, Dove's long-running "Campaign for Real Beauty" campaign, which points out the many ways in which women can be their own worst enemy when it comes to their self-image.

But while we are used to this type of prescriptive ad messaging targeting women and their emotions, men are more often appealed to with humor and lighthearted quips or sex-based appeals. So, Gillette's approach has really struck a nerve for some and a chord for others.

Those who have expressed negative reactions to the spot seem to feel that the brand is pointing to the most negative stereotypes of men in an accusatory fashion, which seems at odds with the goal of winning them over as customers.

Many of these negative reactions reference recent social and political debates played out in the media, such as the #MeToo movement, Supreme Court nominee accusations and celebrity figures who have been accused of various forms of sexual misconduct.

To the extent that anything these days that can be viewed as remotely political is likely to evoke strong visceral reactions, controversy is inevitable. On the other hand, one might argue that there is nothing inherently political about being a decent human being and, in this case, raising decent men.

Much like positive body image and self-confidence do not directly emerge from the use of Dove products, there is a relevant connection, albeit counterfactual in nature, between the beauty industry and women's feelings toward beauty and particularly the acknowledgement and embrace of their own beauty.

Likewise, a brand like Gillette has long had the slogan "The Best a Man Can Get," which has subtly emphasizes the importance of living one's best life and being one's best - a goal that goes beyond razors and shaving to appeal to higher-order needs. It seems fully within that vein that Gillette would encourage men to be their best in other ways as well. 

In line with their other recent concurrent campaign, which profiles the coming of age of Shaquem Griffin (an NFL linebacker player who succeeded despite being born with amniotic band syndrome resulting in his left hand being amputated when he was a child), Gillette proposes that "your best never comes easy" and portrays Griffin being raised to work hard and succeed despite his particular physical challenges.

Both ads include Gillette products as part of the journey to manhood, which is a perfect parallel. Shaving is often seen as a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood and a shared teaching experience from father-figure to son along with many other life lessons on becoming a man and being one's best.

For Gillette, "grooming" goes far beyond the literal act but embraces grooming future selves and future generations of men. In this vein, their messaging in the current campaign is incredibly topical and timely.

Another argument that could be made as to why the current ad message is so on point is the reality of who the target audience really consists of. While men are clearly the target audience for the messaging and the protagonist in the ad, women are often the household purchasers and decision-makers for many household and grooming products.

Many men do hold specific preferences for brands of grooming products - particularly razors - but women make many such decisions for the household and serve as the purchaser of the products, so their reaction matters as well.

An unscientific analysis of online reactions seems to show women's reactions to the spot are overwhelmingly positive, which Gillette's brand team no doubt predicted.

One issue that I do take with the spot is the title of the ad, which may work to undermine the incredible potential of the spot to be received as positively as it could be and that is the title: "Toxic Masculinity."

While it is not aired with the title, even the references to it in coverage, online and in discussion emphasizes the negative and perhaps contributes to some people's defensive stance.

The term "toxic masculinity" is a bit jarring and frames the spot as an accusation aimed at men and manhood in general rather than the learning opportunity that it is meant to be.

For all men, including those who are totally innocent of any bad behavior as well as those who may reflect on words or actions both intentional and not, the ad ideally can serve as an answer to the questions: "What can I do?" and "How can I make a difference?"

It provides illustrations of how words or actions can be destructive and what can be said and done in such situations and also serves as a reminder that young generations of boys and men are looking to these examples as opportunities to learn and grow. 

What makes the ad so successful, though, is the fact that it has sparked sharing, conversation, debate, discomfort, introspection, thought, articles, press and discussion. It has made us feel, which is an often elusive goal for brands, and it has made us think.

It has made men think of Gillette as more than just another manufacturer of razors but as a brand with meaning and with values and, perhaps, part of their journey to manhood.

Interestingly enough, despite the controversy (or, in fact, because of it) one's reaction to the Gillette spot has itself become a barometer by which to gauge the very existence of toxic masculinity.

Per one social media meme, "Your response to the Gillette commercial tells me all I need to know about you as a person." For this and for their contribution to the dialog and movement toward creating change, bravo Gillette.

Marlene Towns is a professor of marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

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