From ‘The best a man can get’ to ‘The best a man can be’, did Gillette cut it wrong?

In a world where nuance gets lost amidst the rancor, it’s worth taking a look at what Gillette got right and what it may have missed

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Jan 22, 2019 8:39 AM

Who knew that razor blade commercials would make headlines? But these aren’t ordinary times. Last week’s Gillette commercial, playing on the #MeToo movement, calling out men to be better versions of themselves sparked a great deal of discussion and controversy. Twitterati literally demolished the brand for their campaign, with many threatening to boycott it. The commercial has triggered a debate about whether companies should simply stick to promoting their products or sell social causes. In a world where nuance gets lost amidst the rancor, it’s worth taking a look at what Gillette got right and what it may have missed.


On razor’s edge


For Jagdish Acharya, Founder-Creative Head, Cut The Crap, Gillette has cut it all wrong with this one. Acharya argues that the first question that it begs - the call of conscience now after 30 years (which happens to be the age of its tagline) - makes it a culprit in plain sight. “It’s the condescending attitude of the ad that makes it really worse. It literally assumes the role of a moral beacon, out to reform the erring mankind. The brand seems to have scored an own goal by talking down to its consumers.”


Subhash Kamath, CEO & Managing Partner, BBH, remarks that people seem to be reacting sharply to the perceived generalisation in it and the view that it stereotypes all men, which it doesn’t. "I personally don't quite understand the controversy surrounding this ad. The message in it is simple, really: Teach your children how to respect others, so they can grow up to be the best they can be. Things like bullying and sexist behaviour are real issues in our society. All it says is teach them the right values when they're young, that's all. I don't think it paints all men in a bad light at all," says Kamath.


It’s interesting to note that the ad is titled ‘We Believe’. The commercial says, ‘We believe in the best in men.’ The ad’s closing line -it’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best- demonstrates the confidence.


Bindu Balakrishnan, Country Head, DCMN India, says that with its latest toxic masculinity ad, Gillette has definitely taken a step in the right direction but it now needs to walk the talk. “The brand has made a conscious shift to standing up for social issues by asking men to be the best version of themselves. All their future advertising has to follow the same ethos to establish Gillette as a brand with the right values and beliefs. It now needs to ride the huge social media wave it has created and emerge victorious.”


If we look back, Nike released its controversial ad starring quarterback Colin Kaepernick to a lot of accolades as well as vitriol. "But we have to keep in mind that historically, Nike and Gillette have had very different images. Nike is known for standing up for issues and making strong statements, whereas Gillette has only talked about their razors and how a clean-shaven man is a successful man,” she adds.


Priya Gurnani, Creative Head, Publicis Worldwide, contends that ultimately it’s not the social media flak that will decide the success of the Gillette campaign but the market share and the dollars spent at the supermarket. “As far as the effects of the Gillette campaign are concerned, we are still talking about it, aren’t we?” she exclaims.

Gayatri Sriram, Digital Creative Head- Delhi, FCB Ulka, feels that from ‘The best a man can get’ to ‘The best the men can be’ is a beautiful transition that lands on the brand perfectly. “Gillette is forcing us to confront a reality where patriarchy is so ingrained, that a message AGAINST toxic masculinity, is attracting global backlash. Fragile male egos are being threatened by a 2-min ad asking them to be nice and to call out bad behaviour. This response is exactly why we need this narrative. And I tip my hat to Gillette for being so profoundly brave. It makes the ad seem right for Gillette, and not just for the sake of some PR.”


Sriram also says that one ad does not make the social change. “Gillette has committed to challenge stereotypes in all their ads, social media, imagery etc. So I’ll be waiting to see how they deliver on that promise."


Should brands take a stand?

The question that remains here is- should brands take a stand and take the lead in effecting change? Industry observers advise that the power they possess comes with a responsibility. So it shouldn't just be a clever piece of advertising but come from the brand belief and should be authentic.


Comments Kamath, “I do think brands should take a stand on issues that are pertinent to society, wherever possible. But most importantly, it should be relevant to the brand's core idea. And it should be authentic and honest, coming from the brand's real belief. Only then would it give the brand a real purpose and engage with its consumers in a true way." 


Balakrishnan adds that today’s consumers feel strongly about social issues and want to associate themselves with a brand which does the ‘right thing’. Acharya feels that brands can take a stand if they’ve earned it. “Most, however, try to earn it by taking a stand. At best, the brand may get itself a tick just for the effort, like an out-of-tune singer in a chorus. Otherwise, it’s a hit wicket.”

The lack of a real plan of action seems to follow a worrying trend of brands appropriating social purpose for compelling advertising creative, and quickly moving on next quarter to another ‘cool’ trend to sell their product. The inauthentic activity does little to walk the talk on the issues they are addressing.

Sriram opines that brands shoulder a big responsibility to undo damage. “Advertising has been failing men for decades, reinforcing a parochial, inflexible definition of being a man. Gillette is fighting for men to be able to choose who they are, without worrying about subscribing to some draconian view of masculinity. Brands shoulder a big responsibility to undo this damage, and Gillette’s ad, while radical today, should become par for the course in the next few years. Something for all of us to think about when we hit the next brief.”

Gurnani lets out that people today connect to brands that speak their language. “Any communication sets trends and influences the mindset of its receiver. The younger generation today have stronger social beliefs and aren’t afraid to stand by them and defend them. Closer home, Idea has been doing this for a long time. So if a brand wants to take a stand, change perceptions in an attempt to leave a better society for generations to come, why not is my question? Then there is also a sect that would say “Have you seen how the so and so brand treats their employees? These can be endlessly debated.”

The message is clear: It’s about time brands start putting measurable action behind their advertising messages. 

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