Why is the new Gillette ad so controversial?

With a razor brand kick-starting a heated (and needed) conversation about modern masculinity on social media, the age of advertising activism has arrived

Only a week after the inexplicably controversial launch of Gregg’s Millennial-baiting vegan sausage roll, the latest inanimate object to get caught in a maelstrom of Twitter outrage is the razor. Gillette’s new campaign, which takes its 30 year-old battlecry to men and flips it to ask, ‘is this is the best a man can get?’. Take a look at the ad, entitled We believe: the best men can be, here:

In stark contrast to years of adverts featuring chin stroking and whiskers being slashed back by computer generated blades, this campaign takes the more damaging stereotypes of traditional masculinity (bullying, aggression, sexual harassment) and challenges men to fight them.

Since the advert’s launch, the hashtag #boycottgillette has been cropping up on tweets and Instagram posts decrying it as demonising men and arguing that this sort of approach would never be used in a film that focuses on women. Some have described the ad as ‘man-hating’ or as the latest chapter in ‘a war against masculinity’. Some argue that boys’ innate ‘energy, aggression, and creativity’ are being ‘stifled’ by this sort of narrative. Some simply don’t want to be lectured by a corporation whose goal is to sell products.

These arguments miss the point. The story here isn’t some generalisation that all men are bad, it’s about questioning the behaviours that society deems ‘masculine’ – and interrogating why we excuse certain actions because they’re performed by a man (aka the ‘boys will be boys’ defence).

The thing is that we know that here in the UK, men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives, while over 70 per cent of homicides are male, and 94 per cent of sexual offences against men go unreported. Those character traits that define stereotypical masculinity – the inability to talk about feelings, build intimate friendships or express emotions in a way other than aggression – are holding men back and in some cases leading to them ending their lives. This needs to be tackled.

The examples in Gillette’s video – stopping bullying, calling out sexual harassment, defusing aggression – should really be the baseline requirements of common human decency, regardless of gender. But the fact that so many people are unable to cope with a razor advert that raises these issues just shows how pervasive these damaging attitudes towards masculinity really are – and how vital it is to start a conversation around them.

That said, it seems that – however heavy-handed you might feel the commercial might be at getting its point across – Gillette has indeed facilitated that conversation on social media. Many have pointed out that those feeling threatened by this should ask themselves why they feel that way. Others have noted the dangers of biological determinism, and argued that the toxic traits of sexual assault, bullying and violence are separate from masculinity. Perhaps most importantly are people congratulating such a powerful brand (arguably the world’s most recognisable and visible razor-maker, bought by multiple generations of men) for using its substantial advertising kitty to promote and open this sort of dialogue.

With this Gillette campaign, it feels like the era of advertising activism has come of age. While advertisers and brands have linked themselves to causes since the dawn of the big-dollar advertising age, it’s taken on a whole new meaning with social media being such an important tool for setting (and discussing) the news agenda and social issues. Of course, it can be done well and it can be done badly. Nike hiring SF49ers star Colin Kaepernick for its 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ campaign (last year?) following the furore that saw him get fired after kneeling for national anthem in protest against racial injustice in the United States was controversial, but started a valuable, and much needed, conversation about race and patriotism on social media. On the other hand, you have Pepsi’s 2017 advert with Kendall Jenner where the supermodel was shown to defuse a riot (what these people were rioting about was never clear) using a can of the soft drink as a peace offering. This was roundly (and rightly) criticised for trivialising the protests over gun control and police brutality happening across the world at the time, and belittling the solution to them.

Yes, brands will always get caught up in the criticism that they are exploiting causes for profit – it’s an advert to sell products afterall. But this feels significant due to the brand it is – one that has masculinity at the very core of its existence, and yet realises that that idea of masculinity it’s based on raises questions. At a time when the political world is so fractured and it feels like so many voices are going unheard, if brands can use their power to raise awareness about things that are important to talk about (and that might not be getting the air time they deserve elsewhere), then to our mind that is far more preferable than a run-of-the-mill ad with glossy set pieces and beautiful people. Hopefully, this is just the start of a year when we begin to see more brands using their advertising power for good, and starting the conversations about society, politics and culture that need to be had.