Gillette’s ‘toxic masculinity’ ad is ‘opportunistic and hollow’ – it will alienate its customers, but please #MeToo movement

It’s a good example of a brand misunderstanding the power (and in this case, the meaning) of its own big idea and coming up way short by making advertising for everyone rather than for its defined, loyal target audience – argues adland veteran David Mayo

If I wasn’t such a balanced and moderate model example of a modern progressive male, the ‘Believe’ ad by Gillette would be a commercial that might irritate me a little bit. The reason being because it mansplains all the things that we as humans – and on closer inspection – men, should and shouldn’t do to other humans.

On first view, I thought it was a parody in the style of Smirnoff Tea Party. I was waiting for the punchline. But it never came.

The film is actually telling me off by examining a few social ills and laying them at my feet by assuming that all men are, well, just ‘men’, rather than Gentlemen (which I am told was the original intent of the line ‘Gillette, the best a man can get’ way back in 1988).

In one scene in Believe, a dad breaks up a fight between kids. In another a guy tells his pal that its not cool to catcall a passing woman. In another, a dad breaks up a group of bullies.

Nothing in this toe-curling film is anything that any of we men wouldn’t ordinarily do as part of our everyday lives. What is fails most heroically at is the ability to distinguish between doing good and do-gooding.

It rightly and obviously says that bullying is bad. Similarly it says that we should respect one another as people. Nobody is going to disagree with that. But then you realise that it’s talking to me as though I don’t know these things already. Ham-fistedly trying to reflect the boundaries which are being re-written in our society every day, instead of leading with behavior and values that reflect the good in our society.

So why has this famous and much-loved brand with its deep, masculine promise of a tagline chosen to beat their core consumers with a stick called ‘toxic masculinity’? The truth it, it hasn’t chosen for that to happen at all. In all the excitement, the idea seems to have run away with them and the seeds of a great strategy got lost in the social hubris sweeping our feeds daily.

We can all see what the brand and the communication wanted to say. The strategic intent is solid but as sometimes happens to many of us; when it stood up to speak the brain didn’t connect with the mouth and a platitudinous op-ed was created.

It’s a good example of a brand misunderstanding the power (and in this case, the meaning) of its own big idea and coming up way short by making advertising for everyone rather than for its defined, loyal target audience.

And that target audience doesn’t have to be split along gender lines, if we are talking about it. Brands must support values that anyone can share but by asking and encouraging men to set an example, by asking men to lead by their actions and to ‘be-the-people-that-the-people-around-them-think-they-are-and-want-them-to-be-in-a-world-where-we-are-all-looking-for-positive-role-models-to-believe-in’ is a great place to start.

Interpreting that by starting with the assumption that all of society is suffering from a severe bout of something we have decided to call ‘toxic masculinity’ which needs fixing, is only going to look opportunist and hollow.

Gillette is not an opportunistic or hollow brand. It is strong, reliable, universal and constant – just like the consumers it is designed for and the men it is designed to represent. If anything, it is up to brands like Gillette to remain solid among the winds of social change and to support the people who buy their products. But here, it has stooped to populism and hubris.

This work has been made with the lobby in mind rather than the consumer and it escapes the fact that if you try and stand for everything or the wrong thing, you stand for nothing. David Ogilvy famously observed that nobody ever built a statue of a committee and this an example of why.

Gillette men – gentlemen – by definition do not need advertising to tell them how to behave and set an example. They probably expect their brands to reflect their values and their beliefs. This film does set out to do that but it quickly becomes worthy and preachy in a tedious, self-righteous way.

Gillette definitely has a role to support, represent and uphold positive male values and in this case, in the same way that other brands support their core audiences, they are best placed to support men. But this work just makes me feel yet again that men are bad and somehow need fixing.

As a reference point on how to do this, look at brands that support women like Dove, Always and Spanx which are manifestly pro-women but in an inclusive and reflective way. They publicly support their audience and help others around them to do the same. They also work hard behind the scenes to put their money where their mouths are by supporting women in many positive ways. They feel real, focused and positive. No finger-wagging here.

And broader brands like Smirnoff, Vodafone, and Brewdog have all managed to support women and make a positive difference without annoying the core who buy their products.

So could Gillette have not have done this in a different way? Like women, men have their image on the outside but they also have their own anxieties and pressures, so rather than add to those, Gillette might have spoken to their sons, their daughters and the women in their lives if they were wanting to do something positive and supportive in society.

If you’re going to stand for something, stand for something in support of something and use positive energy to make a positive difference. It is not advertising’s job to collectivise and admonish – there’s enough of that in this toxic world already.

We always talk about the ‘benefit of the benefit’ in this business; ‘The best a man can be’ set out to be an inspirational totem to men. It’s a great idea. It could have been executed in ways which inspire and motivate but in choosing the shortcut to a movement – while Gillette will have their hands full with the debate that this work will undoubtedly cause – will it build the brand and defend their category beating number one positioning, or is it the first step in becoming another me-too brand?

Mayo doesn’t need Gillette to tell him how to behave

David Mayo worked at Ogilvy and WPP for 21 years – for many years as a CEO in Asia – and is now working as a consultant and serving on the boards of several companies


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