‘The Best Men Can Be’: Gillette sparks backlash with ad on ‘toxic masculinity’

On 13th January Gillette released their short film ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’, which was posted on YouTube with the caption ‘Bullying. Harassment. Is this the best a man can get? It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more, that we can get closer to our best. To say the right thing, to act the right way. We are taking action at http://www.thebestmencanbe.org. Join us.’

Gillette’s 30-year-old tagline ‘Gillette, the best a man can get’, is one of the most notorious, memorable and effectual slogans of recent history. Gillette has chosen to revitalise the classic brand. In the past when the slogan was first used in the 80s, the best a man can get was a gorgeous wife, a sports victory and a space shuttle career. So an update was welcome. The short film, which also appears on TV, focuses instead on what has been termed the modern day crisis of masculinity, as well as the #MeToo movement. The video advert marks a complete 180 in their tone of voice.

Instead of men smouldering in the mirror and looking sexy whilst they shave (not a thing in reality), we are shown scenes of bullying, catcalling, mansplaining in the boardroom, “geeky kids” miserable watching videos of spring break, and an endless row of fathers at their barbecue stations chanting “Boys will be Boys” as they watch two boys fight in front of them. A voiceover is then heard, “Is this the best a man can get?” Cue inspirational music and men doing good things. The advert exhibits friends calling out each other for catcalling, fathers stepping in to stop their kids from fighting, and so on, with the emphasis on the fact that the boys of today are watching and will follow by the example you give. The ad shows a clip of Terry Crews (who spoke out about his experience of sexual assault earlier this year), exclaiming that men need to hold other men accountable. They note that some are already doing this, but they need to do more. The advert ends with the text across the screen which reads, “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best”.

With this advert, Gillette attempts to align their brand with a more contemporary perception of masculinity, in the hope that they will retain their billion-dollar asset (the slogan), but bring it into 2019 and subsequently attract a new generation of customers and generate a pile of on-brand publicity to boot.

The men in it, who end the ad by breaking up fights, stopping their friends from making women uncomfortable, and generally behaving decently, seem like great guys. The ad implies that, in the modern age, this should be the new model for confident masculinity. The ad received more than 2 million views on YouTube in 48 hours, and at the time of writing has over 25 million views.

Some have commented that the advert feels a bit clinical, like a public service announcement, and I must agree that it is a little bit cheesy.  Their attempt to capitalise on the crisis of masculinity may be somewhat transparent; at the end of the day they sell razors, and nowhere in the ad do we see razors or the act of shaving feature. However, it must be said that the message they ultimately convey is both brave and significant, and ‘the best a man can be’ feels like a positive call to action centring on self-improvement and the unity of men, which seems like a fitting message to start off the new year.

The advert was directed by Kim Gehrig from the UK-based production company Somesuch, who also directed the 2015 campaign for Sport England, This Girl Can.

The reaction online has been largely negative, with many men’s rights activists claiming it is “emasculating” and anti-men. It was to be anticipated that this would cause a stir, but the nature and ferocity of the backlash in the comment section and on social media is truly concerning, and illustrates that toxic masculinity is alive and well.

Many have pledged to boycott the brand, claiming the advert is an attack on men, masculinity, and what it means to be a “real man”. One person on YouTube wrote “Not buying any more. A company making billions from male grooming products trying to shame men for being… men?”.

This is very disturbing when we consider that the traits and behaviour that Gillette ‘shame’ include bullying, aggression, and sexual misconduct. Is this what it means to be a man?

Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain claims that the advert is suggesting that “A man trying to be successful and overachieve and be stoic is a crime”. This is very perplexing; the advert quite clearly encourages men to be brave, to stand for change, and strive for self-betterment … if we assume here that by ‘successful’ Piers means in terms of a job, it is strange that he would suggest that adopting these character traits Gillette celebrate would somehow be a restrictive force?

Mark Ritson writes for Marketing Week “Rather than a work of inspiration and aspiration she delivers a short film that feels vindictive and accusatory. We are not being shown the better path, we are being told we are all on the wrong one and must change course immediately. Men are to blame. You, yes you.” This idea that Gilette is branding all men as immoral makes me wonder if Mr Ritson has even watched the advert. The voiceover literally says that there are men out their today doing the right thing, being strong fathers and role models, and we should champion and imitate those efforts because it is men that have the power to make the world a better place. It literally talks about not looking backwards but forwards; they’re not dwelling on the past and wagging their fingers saying ‘oh haven’t you been a naughty boy’, they’re saying think about the world you want to live in, be the best version of yourself, as they always have done. Amongst the negative comments some have praised them for their new direction:

Gillette has partnered with the ‘Building A Better Man Project’, which seeks to reduce violent behaviour in men, and ‘The Boys and Girls Club of America’, which helps young men develop better social and communication skills. It’s also donating $1m (around £778,000) a year for the next three years to US charities aimed at supporting men.

Gillette has more to lose than to gain; before releasing the advert Gillette enjoyed a 50% market share in America and even more in the UK, which begs the question as to why they needed such a radical and controversial campaign for their reboot. Gillette joins a number of big brands that have decided to inject politics and social commentary into their marketing approach, but only time will tell whether the negative reactions online will convert into a fall in sales figures or if the notion that ‘there’s no such thing as bad PR’ will reign true.

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