Toxic Masculinity row: What does Gillette shifting focus say about purposeful advertising?

Following the controversy over the #MeToo movement-inspired ad in Jan, the brand has shifted its spotlight from social issues to local heroes

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Sep 9, 2019 3:52 PM



After a $8 billion write-down for parent company Procter & Gamble due to razor brand Gillette’s controversial ad campaign playing on the #MeToo movement, the company had to call off its war against toxic masculinity. The brand shifted its spotlight from social issues to local heroes. So, what does this instance say about purposeful advertising? Has it run its course or is it the case of nuance getting lost amidst rancor? Is there no purpose higher than profit for brands today?

The controversial commercial released in January 2019 plays on the famous #MeToo movement calling out men to be better versions of themselves. It sparked a great deal of discussion and controversy, with twitterati literally demolishing the brand for their campaign and many threatening to boycott it. The commercial triggered a debate about whether companies should simply stick to promoting their products or sell social causes. 

Agnello Dias, CCO & Co-Founder & Creative Chairman, Taproot Dentsu DAN India, asserts that when brands wear the mantle of social activism, it's always going to be a delicate balance. “Social issues are social issues because they always have a polarising factor. And even if it is nuanced wrong, it can spread like wildfire,” he explains.

Dias feels Gillette may have set out with a fair objective, but with the world today being in the stranglehold of interpretation and the manner in which the brand went about executing it, had a strong backlash.

The brand’s latest TV campaign shifts the spotlight from social issues to local heroes like firefighters and personal trainers. The new ad, launched last week, stars Australian firefighter and personal trainer Ben Ziekenheiner. “I’ve been a firefighter for 19 years,” Ziekenheiner says in the ad.

Raghu Bhat, Founder & Copywriter, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi, believes the local heroes theme uses a typical advertising technique – celebrate the heroic underdog.

“It is definitely positive, safe and non-polarising. However, the only problem is that people may not be that ready to forget the earlier campaign that was negative and came across as men-shaming,” he adds.

“The aggressive tonality of ‘toxic masculinity’ made it look like a piece of extreme propaganda from the liberal lobby, exactly the kind of stuff that President Donald Trump keeps railing against. It’s easy to imagine the vast majority of ‘gun-owning, Republican-voting, daily-shaving Bible belt’ American men reject the campaign,” he remarks.

Bhat feels by changing the campaign, Gillette could be seen as riding the gravy train of purpose instead of standing for something. He concludes that brands need to be careful about purpose-led advertising, as for most, there is no higher purpose than profit.

Commenting on the shift in messaging, Manu Airan, Associate Brand Director for Gillette Australia and New Zealand, had said, “We have a very clear strategy when it comes to how we authentically connect with our consumers. We will continue to talk about what is important to Gillette, and that is representing men at their best and helping men do their best. That is not changing. We will continue to do that and demonstrate it in different ways.”

The company blamed the write-down primarily on a strengthening of US dollar. It said the non-cash impairment charge was also due to increased competition and a shrinking market for razors as men shave less frequently.

Apaksh Gupta, Founder & CEO, One Impression, opines that the brand is courageous to instil progressiveness into the society.

“Newness in brand communication connotes the courage to communicate with your consumers even if it involves taking a few risks. Especially in the case of an FMCG product, you have to go beyond your current fence of communication to ultimately create value for the users,” he says. 

Harish Bijoor, Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults iNc, says the brand has been at the forefront of experimentation with consumer themes. While some of these experiments have bombed, Gillette has learnt and corrected, Bijoor adds.

“What is important for a brand is what its set of consumers think and emote with and about. If the brand has the pulse of that in check, nothing will go wrong. Gillette erred on a couple of counts, at times wanting to force the pace of consumer-think. That bombed.”

“I still do believe the company is where it must be-- at the forefront of consumer experimentation,” Bijoor says.

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