Get Woke, Go Broke? How a Gillette Ad Sparked a Debate
A recent Gillette ad has reignited debate over the role that companies can and should play in activism and social justice.
On January 13, Gillette released a new ad campaign with a short film titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be”. Two days later, that video has over 6 million views on Youtube, and has garnered over 445,000 dislikes. Many are decrying Gillette for seemingly pandering to a social-justice-minded audience, or trying to appear “woke”- and the hashtag #GetWokeGoBroke has begun to gain traction.
This is certainly not the first time a brand has attempted to be “woke” and it has backfired quite miserably- who can forget that infamous Pepsi ad with Kylie Jenner? But as debate swirls on the internet, it is continuing to raise the larger issue of what role corporations can and should play in social justice and activism.
This Gillette campaign was developed to challenge the notion of toxic masculinity, a topic the American Psychological Association has recently addressed with a series of guidelines for psychiatric professionals to remember when assisting male patients. It also attempts to portray “positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man”. The key aspect of the campaign is revamping the Gillette tagline that has been around for 30 years- “The Best A Man Can Get”- to “The Best Men Can Be”.
The video illustrates situations in which men are behaving poorly, such as a group of boys bullying another young boy, a man groping a woman, and so on. It then highlights some of the changes that have been occurring in recent years, including the #MeToo movement. Finally, Gillette asserts that it believes in the best in men, and depicts men behaving positively, such as calling out their friends who catcall or stopping a fight between two young boys.
Since the campaign was launched, it has received significant backlash from many people. A quick glance through the comments section will reveal countless declarations of anger at Gillette for “politicizing” razors and attacking men, and many people claiming that they will no longer purchase Gillette products. Twitter features many similar negative opinions.
Others are applauding Gillette for speaking up against what they feel is a critical issue in society.
Beyond the overall emotional response this campaign is generating, there is a deeper discussion at play: what role should corporations play in activism and social justice, and should corporations be the new arbiters of public morality?
Studies have shown that young people increasingly want to spend money on products and companies that are socially responsible. The 2015 Nielson Global Corporate Sustainability Report indicated that, globally, 73% of surveyed millennials are willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. Furthermore, 81% of millennials even expect their favorite companies to make public declarations of their corporate citizenship.
With this rise in consumers who value corporate citizenship, more young people are finding a sense of identity with the products they buy. For some people, they feel that buying a product from a “woke” brand is a way of signaling who they are as a person. But big corporations need to tread very carefully when attempting to tap into this phenomenon.
This campaign rubbed a lot of wrong people the wrong way because of the way it seemed to be virtue-signaling in an attempt to jump on the bandwagon of a social issue and drive up exposure and profits.
As a Vox article asserts, “It would be tempting to praise many of these companies unreservedly for “taking a stand.” But it is worth, too, examining what it means to live in a society where public morality is dictated by corporations with a financial interest in our sense of virtue.”
While it is hard to view this campaign outside of the reality of a large corporation ultimately seeking to make more profits, I do not think that this ad is nearly as negative or as accusatory towards men as many people are making it out to be, and I certainly support the overall message the ad is trying to promote.
That being said, I think the ad could have focused more heavily on the various positive representations of masculinity, as well as the actual action that Gillette is planning to take with this campaign, such as donating “$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.” Highlighting the actual concrete steps the company is taking to address the issue it is featuring in the campaign might help ease some of the discomfort people are feeling with Gillette seemingly commodifying activism.
It is important to remember that this campaign does not exist in a vacuum. We can support companies for promoting progressive causes while still knowing that ultimately it is a strategic branding move. We can feel good when companies spread what we feel are positive messages while still recognizing that in many past instances, corporate messaging has reinforced many of the issues that these new “woke” campaigns are now attempting to address.
My biggest ask is that companies that do choose to stand up for an issue in their marketing do not think that a campaign alone can reverse past wrongs or cement the brand as a socially responsible entity. Running an ad campaign on an issue and then doing nothing else is, to me, worse than simply running a basic campaign stating the features of a product or service. If a company wants to address a social issue in an ad, I believe that they should also be clear about what concrete steps they are taking to make a positive difference with regards to that issue (such as donating money to nonprofits, as Gillette is doing). Beyond that, they should be increasingly transparent about their day-to-day business practices and try to continuously improve them to be more sustainable and ethical, to prove to consumers that they can practice what they preach, so to speak.
Naturally, campaigns like this always comes off as a bit more disingenuous when they is coming from a large corporation that hasn’t always had social impact baked into its business model.
Which is why I support the rise of social enterprises that are attempting to disrupt industries while having a positive social impact as a core part of what they do. One example is LOLA, a company with reproductive care products for women that has donated 1,000,000 to low-income women and girls across the US since 2015.
Another example is Harry’s, a company that sells men’s shaving equipment and personal care products. Since the beginning, Harry’s has always been about giving back, and on their Social Missions page, they state “We give to organizations that challenge stereotypes around masculinity.” Every year, Harry’s donate 1% of our sales, and a lot of employees’ time to charitable organizations. Harry’s even published a Masculinity Report in 2018, because they “wanted to progress this dialogue forward, by flipping the telescope and focusing on what gives men a positive outlook.” This report skewed more positively than the Gillette ad, stating “The modern American man is a moral man. When asked what characteristics he aspires to, he chooses values that put the needs of others over his own.”
Part of why Harry’s is great is because they have always had social impact as a key part of the business model, so it doesn’t feel tacked on in the way this new Gillette campaign does. At the same time, Harry’s works to have a social impact but does not shout it from the rooftops. There is no mention of social impact on the Harry’s homepage, and Harry’s is selling a product that many people like and would likely buy even if the social mission did not exist. In fact, many of the people decrying the Gillette ad who declared they were switching to Harry’s might be a bit upset when they discover that one of Harry’s core values is to challenge traditional definitions of masculinity.
In conclusion, the new Gillette ad has sparked a heated but important conversation about the role that companies play in social justice in activism. The truth is that we, as consumers, vote with our wallets every day. Whether that means you never purchase a Gillette product again or you buy out the shelves is your choice. But I hope that in the future, any companies that run an ad focused on a social issue can do so positively while also taking concrete steps to improve business practices and have a positive impact in the issue area. Furthermore, I am excited by the rise of companies that have social impact as a key part of their business model, and I would like to see more consumers shift towards buying products from companies that are genuinely making a difference in communities.