Gillette's toxic masculinity — really toxic or not?

As Gillette's ad response is being compared to that of the Colin Kaepernick's Nike ad, one wonders whether social cause advertising is really understood and received well enough

Neha Kalra
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Gillette's toxic masculinity — really toxic or not?

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Gillette, the razor brand, has come up with a new campaign, #TheBestMenCanBe, that has stirred a lot of people — industry veterans and common people, alike. The ad campaign that deals with social issues such as the #MeToo movement and bullying has become a point of controversy.

Even though the ad does talk about social issues, but would something like a man patting a woman from behind be appropriately understood in the mentioned context or is it only going to ruffle feathers? One wonders if the brand is taking too much of a risk by showing such stuff in its ad.

Some have shown their discomfort towards the ad, trying to clearly state that it shouldn’t generalise that all men inherit bad values. But there are others who are in lot of praise for the ad.

We look at the story from two points of view — one, the advertising bit, and second, the branding bit.

From the advertising point of view, there is a lot of comparison of the Colin Kaepernick Nike ad and the Gillette ad, wherein both the brands have taken a strong stand for the society. We tried to find out which of the two ads were more suitable in their advertising technique.

Debanjan Basak, Creative Director, Dentsu Impact, compares both the ads. “While the Gillette advertisement has received both praise and criticism, one may still need to understand the brand ethos of Gillette. It’s a shaving-blade brand. It has always told us that being clean-shaven is cooler and perhaps more masculine than sporting a beard or stubble. Thus, one may say that Gillette has always looked at masculinity differently and this time around, they did the same,” he said.

About the Nike ad, Basak said, “Nike, in the past, have featured controversial figures in their ads — Lance Armstrong after a doping scandal, Maria Sharapova after a failed drugs test and Tiger Woods, when he was in the middle of a sex scandal. Using Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand up during the National Anthem, also invited tremendous criticism. Once again, we must understand while it is the usage of the celeb that may have been contentious, but the execution style has worked well for Nike in the past. It is an excellently written ad with an inspirational feel and motivational tone. A method which they have successfully delivered through the years, with the likes of Find your Greatness, Unlimited You, etc. It has worked for them in the past and is perhaps equally effective with the Kaepernick Dream Crazy ad.”

Karthik Srinivasan, Communications Consultant on digital/social media marketing & PR, says he would not pitch the Nike ad on the same plane as Gillette's. “Nike’s ad generated a lot of debate and discussions, but wasn't this universally panned. There were many articles on tangible benefits to Nike, including increased sales and market share due to the exposure. With Gillette, the reverse seems to be happening,” he says.

“Primarily, I think Gillette's intent is perfectly on target; there's no disputing that at all. Talking about toxic masculinity is extremely important and on the back of the #MeToo movement, it attains even more significance. But the route they have taken rings completely hollow and staged, and even theatrical. It doesn't seem authentic. Nike's Kaepernick campaign seemed authentic because it was based on a real event, with a real person at the forefront,” Srinivasan opines.

“Even when Dove used 'Real Beauty' or 'You are more beautiful than you think', the attempt was always to seem authentic in the communication all the way. That's the use of seemingly real-looking women instead of models, or the attempt at using a real-life FBI-trained sketch artist for the Beauty Sketches campaign. But Gillette's articulation of the thought seems entirely staged and enacted. That lack of authenticity for a theme as topical and real is the campaign's undoing. The intent is genuine, but it comes across as a fake,” he adds.

But, how far does social cause advertising, such as this, fare in the long run for the brand?

Srinivasan says, “It depends on two things — one, if there is a brand connect. And two, if it is communicated in an authentic manner. An example of a tenuous connection to a cause is, to me, Mirinda’s Release The Pressure. Mirinda’s ‘pressure’ is opening the fizzy bottle (fizz as pressure. Clever, huh?). Connecting that with students’ ‘pressure’ for exams is a massive leap of imagination. Another example was the infamous Pepsi's ad featuring Kendall Jenner. Zero connection that makes the whole affair look incredibly fake.”

A reasonably good connect to a cause, in recent times, is Closeup's new #FreeToLove campaign that generated a lot of debate, Srinivasan feels. “Closeup has always been about ‘fresh breath’ and ‘confidence’ as a lever for ‘coming closer’ (Pass aao na was their jingle!). With #FreeToLove, it almost looks like the brand wants to go behind the people who come close. Who are these people? What do they do? What problems do they face while coming closer (owing to fresh breath, of course, among many other, more important factors)? Is there a larger story behind those problems?,” he says.

Srinivasan adds, “We are in interesting times when employees of large companies like Google, Microsoft, etc., are openly revolting against their management in large enough numbers that the management is seriously taking note. Such revolts were traditionally assumed to be the domain of the so-called blue-collared employees, but things are changing. So there is an audience who cares for causes even if it is told from the lens of for-profit big businesses. But it has to be said in an authentic manner and needs to make sense of why X company is saying it.”

Basak feels that more than a social cause, these are topics. Topics which need to be spoken about in our society. “What matters is what a brand does with it. For instance, the subject of gender diversity at the workplace gave rise to a campaign such as the Fearless Girl. JSW Steel used Geeta Phogat as their brand ambassador and created a beautiful ad, challenging the societal mindset when it came to women. In that regard, brands have been brave to take up such topics and create conversations around it. If done successfully, it does fare well in the long run and impacts a brand’s equity. The important thing to note here is that brands should not shy away from being brave and should always stand by what they believe in,” he adds.

From the brand point of view, one wonders if brands should use this kind of advertising. Isn't it risky for the brand? Also, what's in it for the brand imagery as a whole? Where will this kind of advertising lead the brand to?

Ambi M G Parameswaran

Ambi M G Parameswaran, Brand Strategist and Founder,, thinks that brands need to keep finding new ways of engaging with their consumers in this digital age. So running the same television ads or long format content that touts brands benefits may need to be interspersed with ads that go a lot deeper. And to do this brands have to get better at ‘social listening’ and seeing how their brands can ride a societal change, he says.

“Gillette has tried to reinterpret their famous tagline for the modern era. To be the best a man can get, does not necessarily mean that you need to be a macho male. You can be a sensitive male. You can be a more caring male. You can give up on some of those ‘macho’ symbolism and embrace a new definition of masculinity. In a sense they are trying to say that you can be a Complete Man, without being excessively manly. I think that is a good idea to pursue. Unfortunately they have been hit with a lot of negative social media comment around their effort. I see some positive in that as well. For a low involvement category like blades, facing strong head winds from the beard culture, and cheaper blades, it is good to be part of popular culture discussions. You never know, some of those bearded guys may decide to shave. With a Gillette,” says Parameswaran.

Kalyan Kumar, CEO and Co-Founder, Social Catalyzers, says this is tricky. The overall big numbers seem to indicate that this is working for the brand (they have added more than 700K+ views in the past 24 hours on YouTube alone, and probably a lot more on Twitter where they are seeing the maximum traction). But if you look at their YouTube link, they have more dislikes than likes, i.e. 36% likes and approximately 64% dislikes. It’s a tricky indicator but a negative one on the face of it. Or simply put, its gone bad.

“They would be smart to quickly screen the Twitter comments, remember there is no dislike button on Twitter. So what seems to be happening there simply is the clichéd Men Vs Women (Feminism Vs Neutrals Vs ...) where a lot of people are identifying this as the brand bending backwards to make 'all' men look bad — or at least that’s what the top comments seem to be implying. There are women commenting ‘Why are men’s a good message’ and here's a quote of one of the top comments, ‘I'm offended by this ad because I've never done any of the things depicted in it and yet I'm still lumped in with this portrayal of men and masculinity simply because I'm male," says Kumar.

So, yes, clearly it’s risky, Kumar thinks, as it seems to be splitting the audience to liking or disliking and thus getting offended or not. One would think this is a positive ad that simply says the obvious, that it’s time for a change for the good, teach your children well, etc. But in the internet world, it’s increasingly tough to get it right, because there's a two-way subjective thing, and virality comes from audiences choosing content for good or bad and the cohort of people who seem to be easily 'offended' are quite a few in this case.

Kumar says, “So, yes, in principle! Having said that, I think brands need to go places they haven't before if they want to be heard — address topicality and issues. Many brands do it well in bits and pieces, and many go unnoticed, this for one hasn't gone unnoticed, but not for all the right reasons. While it’s easy to state that, it’s a tough tightrope that will need a lot of practice and getting it right. It’s not a bad idea to make some (in this case sizeable) men go ‘Wait a min, I don’t like this!’ when you are primarily a male brand.”

Summarising, Kumar says that yes of course brands should experiment but test for issues before scaling. When in doubt, Don’t — it’s an old advice.

With regard to brand imagery and where it could lead to for the brand, Kumar thinks that this is hard to tell, honestly from a single campaign, this might lead to pushing forward with more of this or not at all, the latter being more likely or some refinement.

“Brands build over time — very little anyone can do about that. Also to quote someone else, let’s see what the markets say. Gillette has had a long strong association with positivity about a man and all things 'the best a man can get'. There is attempted sincerity here but they'll have to do better to take this nuance positively to everyone. Clearly some spring cleaning coming up. But this current communication needs to stand for a broader umbrella which is unclear at the moment,” says Kumar.

The Video:

Gillette's toxic masculinity really toxic or not?