We Need More Ads Like Gillette’s

Gillette’s new advertisement “The Best Men Can Be” is making some people mad. But we need more ads like theirs, not fewer.

Gillette’s ad

The Gillette video released this week encourages men to speak up and take action when they witness sexual harassment, bullying and fights. It also encourages them to model positive behavior for boys who are watching them.

“We believe in the best in men,” the narrator says, “To say the right thing, to act the right way. Some already are, in ways big and small. But some is not enough. Because the boys watching today, will be the men of tomorrow.”

This messaging may seem non-controversial: be your best self, help stop bad behavior. Yet, a scroll through the video’s comments on Facebook show that a vocal group of people — mainly men — are deeply offended by the message, with some encouraging a boycott of Gillette. One man called the ad “sexist against men.” Other men said they are mad that Gillette for “lumping all men into one group” and challenging what they see as “normal, healthy masculinity.” A few others said the company is “lecturing” them on morals, with one saying, “if I want a preacher I’ll go to church!”

Many of the positive commenters, mainly women, pointed out that those who take offense with the ad’s message or feel attacked by it may want to look at themselves in the mirror because they are probably part of the problem. I agree.

The reality is, aspects of our culture do need to change when it comes to what is seen as acceptable male behavior, and companies like Gillette can help. “Boys will be boys” should no longer be an excuse for fighting and bad behavior. Sexual harassment should no longer be framed as a joke nor a form of flirting. Bullying should not be a rite of passage. The more places these messages are said, hopefully the more likely it is that they will stick, and change will occur.

I work to end sexual harassment, particularly in public spaces. As someone who also has experienced literally hundreds of instances of sexual harassment in school, work, online and in public spaces by boys and men, I am especially grateful that the Gillette ad encourages men to be active in preventing and stopping that behavior.

The personal #MeToo stories plus research show that sexual harassment is a widespread issue, and it is mainly perpetrated by men. A national study my organization Stop Street Harassment spearheaded last year found that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment or sexual assault in their lifetime. Respondents of all genders reported men as the main perpetrators. In the school setting, a national study I co-authored at AAUW found that 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys in grades 7–12 had experienced sexual harassment, and again, the main perpetrators for all genders were boys.

Most efforts to address sexual harassment traditionally target women, telling them to speak out and share their stories, report it to authorities and learn to defend themselves with self-defense and mace. But we can all do that until we are blue in the face, and it won’t necessarily stop sexual harassment from occurring. Men must also be part of the solution and companies like Gillette can encourage them to be.

The ad shows possible ways that men can intervene in instances of street harassment, sexual harassment and bullying and that is particularly important. Research shows that bystander training can be effective at addressing sexual harassment, more so than something like a traditional sexual harassment training. Bystander training invites people to be part of the solution — as does the Gillette ad to men — and model possible ways to act.

Showing fathers modeling positive behavior in the ad was also a good move. Joyful Heart’s national study on redefining manhood conducted last year found when describing a male role model, nearly two-thirds of young men (65 percent) said they are describing a male relative, with nearly half (48 percent) choosing their father. Men need to think about how they act — or don’t act — in front of boys and what message that sends.

And of course, women are not off the hook when it comes to raising a respectful next generation. Mothers and other female relatives must also model appropriate behavior and give age-appropriate guidance on treating others. I am the mother of an eight-month-old boy and one word you’ll often hear me say to him right now when he wants to touch the humans or dogs in our house is “gentle” and then I show him what that means. His father does the same for him.

As my son grows older, I want him and his peers to see a range of messages about men and masculinity, messages like men can be gentle and kind and athletic and strong. Men can be intelligent and helpful and speak out against injustice.

An ad like Gillette’s gives me hope that those will be the sorts of messages with which he grows up, as he strives to be the best man he can be.