If you are bitten by an infected tsetse fly, African sleeping sickness will first invade your nervous system, then it will cause tremors, paralysis, and coma, then it will kill you. This painful, neurologically degenerating process is remarkably quick. If untreated, you will be dead in less than a year.
Thankfully, there’s an effective treatment. Eflornithine — known as Ornidyl, or, ‘the resurrection drug’ in sub-Saharan Africa — is an intravenous medication that has been known to pull infected people out of their late-stage comas. Despite its life-saving potential, in 1995, when the drug’s manufacturers, Aventis, found that they couldn’t sell enough Ornidyl to impoverished Africans to make a profit, they discontinued the drug, leaving thousands of people untreated each year.
The story of eflornithine does not end there, however. In 2001, after six years on the shelf, another more lucrative use was found for the drug: temporarily slowing the growth of women’s facial hair. Suddenly, once its viability in the American beauty market was discovered, eflornithine was rebranded as Vaniqa, and produced and sold in the United States by Gillette.
I watched Twitter erupt over Gillette’s latest ad before I watched the ad itself. If you haven’t seen the lightning, you’ve surely heard the thunder. The ad is a one-minute and forty-nine-second call to men to help deconstruct the dangers of traditional masculinity. As someone who believes in and has written extensively about the damage that masculinity can cause, I was surprised to find that Gillette’s woke new ad put me to sleep.
For more than a century, Gillette has made their billions by telling people what and what not to look like, participating in an exploitative system meant to tighten the boundaries of acceptable body image. Gillette’s ongoing participation in a damagingly gendered industry focused on monetizing self-loathing, particularly in regard to its women customers, makes their sudden new ‘good guy’ image feel like a façade. If your douchebag friend who doesn’t date ‘hairy chicks’ told you that he’s headed to the Women’s March after reading a transformative Bust article, you’d think, ‘Yeah, well, we’ll see’. Gillette is trying to make this change after a century of multinational corporate-level douchery. Yeah, well, we’ll see.
Left-leaning critics of the ad (the few that there were) were quick to call attention to Gillette’s contradictory and troublesome ‘pink tax’. As is the case, it turns out, with many gender-spanning products, products marketed to women tend to cost more than those marketed to men. Gillette’s ‘Venus’ brand is a famous culprit. Gillette markets its standard three-blade razor as low as $6.99 and its Venus equivalent at $9.99. That’s a 43% markup, just for the hourglass handle.
The pink tax on its own is troubling enough to question the integrity of Gillette’s newfound anti-patriarchal enthusiasm. However, the complexities don’t end there. Though Vaniqa has scrubbed Gillette’s name from all of its branding, Gillette still owns the patent and a portion of the profits. In ‘Brilliant Imperfection’, activist Eli Clare writes about Gillette’s role in the history of eflornithine:
[Vaniqa leverages] sexist-racist beauty standards and reinforce[es] the notion that women don’t, or shouldn’t, have facial hair. In prioritizing U.S. women–many of them white and middle class–Aventis…and Gillette leave poor, rural, sub-Saharan Africans to die. In this moment, cure’s life-saving purpose is trumped by its life-manipulating and life-prioritizing purposes, both of which seamlessly slide into its profit-making purpose.
It should be said that Ornidyl is currently being made available for free to those in need by Aventis through the World Health Organization, but this partnership only came about after an activist campaign led by Médecins sans Frontières ‘and a media exposé of Aventis’. As Clare writes,
For the moment, Ornidyl and Vaniqa exist side by side, the second no longer eclipsing the first, but not because of any structural change inside the medical-industrial complex. Rather [Aventis] decided under pressure to make a donation. Long-term access to eflornithine to cure sleeping sickness now relies entirely on the pharmaceutical company’s continued goodwill.
Now, Gillette’s creation of Vaniqa certainly did not cause Aventis to pull Ornidyl out of sub-Saharan Africa, but Gillette played an underhanded role in the rebranding and profit-turning of a life-saving drug, which prioritized the flourishing of the white-centric American beauty industry over the lives of impoverished and fatally ill Africans.
It is also worth noting that Gillette’s advertising history is dodgy at best. As recently October of last year, Gillette was under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for a deceptive marketing campaign which misled consumers into thinking that their razors were made in the United States.
The ‘Faces Behind the Blades’ campaign features employees at Gillette’s Boston factory, uttering phrases like ‘made in Boston’ and ‘U.S.A. pride’ and standing in front of American flags. The trouble is, an investigation by Truth in Advertising found that while the Fusion 5 and Fusion 5 ProGlide cartridges are made in the United States, literally all of Gillette’s other razors are made in Poland, Brazil, Mexico, and China, with a $100 million factory being built in Vietnam.
But perhaps we can let Gillette’s advertising bygones be bygones. After all, Gillette hired a new team to produce their recent campaign. But what would cause the company to change their tune from last year’s ‘The Best A Man Can Get (and Ladies too)’ to last week’s ‘We Believe’? Maybe, as their website claims, it’s ‘turn[ing] on the news today’ and seeing that ‘men are not at their best’. Maybe it’s money.
Last year, when Nike released the latest installment of their ongoing ‘Just Do It’ campaign, it featured a controversial face: Colin Kaepernick. The ad was a black and white close-up of Kaepernick’s face, overlaid with the text, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’ The campaign sparked international boycotts from consumers who felt that Nike was standing–or kneeling, rather–with Kaepernick’s anti-racist, anti-police brutality, Black Lives Matter anthem protest. Nike, however, didn’t mind the backlash.
In December of last year, it was reported that Nike sales had gone up ten percent since the ad’s debut. It turns out, there’s money in social justice.
Left-wing critics were quick to point out that Nike’s progressive stance was only posturing, citing the company’s infamously poor wages and working conditions in their Asian factories. A 2016 investigation found that in one of Nike’s Vietnamese factories, workers were earning only $0.61 to $0.89 per hour, and were sometimes forced into illegal overtime work.
While investigations into Gillette’s Asian and Latin American factories have not been conducted, it is unlikely that Gillette outsources their labor because it costs them more. What is likely, however, is that they’ve crunched the numbers on Nike’s foray into fauxkeness.
While it’s too early to say what effect the campaign will have on sales, an early survey conducted by Morning Consult in the days following the ad’s release shows that Gillette’s favorability is skyrocketing. Before watching the ad, 42 percent of those surveyed felt Gillette ‘shared their values’. After watching? 71 percent. That’s a 29 percent jump in one minute and forty-nine seconds.
Gillette is under attack and — here’s the thing — it’s not by alt-right Twitter trolls. Online blade startups like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s are shaving off some of Gillette’s revenue, causing Gillette’s market share to drop from 70 percent to 50 percent in less than a decade. Last year alone, Gillette’s parent company, Procter and Gamble, cut the cost of their razors by 12 percent just to keep up. With major news outlets all over the country reporting that Gillette’s sales are down, The New York Times called the crisis a ‘guerrilla war for men’s faces’.
The problem is that Gillette is going wrong precisely where startups have gone right. In an article called ‘How Companies Like Dollar Shave Club Are Reshaping the Retail Landscape’, The New York Times investigated what it is that is setting young internet companies apart from their corporate predecessors. The answer is stupidly simple: the internet. Tristan Walker, the founder of Walker & Company, says that competing with Gillette is about more than price slashing; it’s about appealing to the world’s most influential demographic via the media that they consume the most: ‘[W]e can use the internet to promulgate our message across the board, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram — and that gives us amazing leverage.’
With Gillette’s ‘We Believe’ trending all over Twitter and Facebook, it’s not difficult to see how the industry giants plan on stomping their competition. If they can’t outprice them, maybe they can outwoke them. Their new ‘socially responsible’ look might just be the ‘leverage’ they need. Morning Consult also spoke to Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club customers, 56 percent of which ‘said they would be more likely to buy from Gillette after watching the commercial’.
The truth is that, whether they believe their own ad or not, Gillette doesn’t want to make less money. No company does. For this reason, the motives behind a wholesale corporate rebrand will always be suspicious. If it sounds too good to be true, well, it just might be. On their website, Gillette has made the following promise:
From today on, we pledge to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette. In the ads we run, the images we publish to social media, the words we choose, and so much more.
As part of The Best Men Can Be campaign, Gillette is committing to donate $1 million per year for the next three years to non-profit organizations executing programs in the United States designed to inspire, educate and help men of all ages achieve their personal “best” and become role models for the next generation.
$1 million a year for a $17 billion company feels like a placative gesture, but fine. And there is something to be said for a high profile global corporation helping to normalize progressive thinking. But Gillette has everything left to prove. If they truly want to move forward and atone for their past, they’ve got all of their work ahead of them. In the era of #MeToo, we’ve seen too many poor apologies, too many empty gestures, and too many broken promises. Will Gillette continue to prioritize white American beauty standards over the health of people of color? Will they eradicate the pink tax? Will they cease to exploit the labor of people of color in their international factories? Or will ‘We Believe’ turn out to be this year’s ‘Made in the U.S.A.’?
Maybe Gillette has made a true change, but their 100-year participation in exploitative capitalism cannot be undone in one minute and forty-nine seconds. ‘The best men can be’ is not the best Gillette can be.