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Is Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad actually aimed at women?

Women still buy a lot of razors for men

In a week in which political turmoil in two G8 nations literally broke records for political chaos, you’d think social media would have had enough to keep itself occupied. Think again. No, what sent the internet into meltdown this week was a commercial for men’s razors.

Gillette launched an ad this week that references the #MeToo movement and toxic masculinity. The short film plays around with the company’s famous slogan “The best a man can get”, eventually replacing it with “The best men can be”.

To say the reception has been “mixed” is an understatement. Viewers are divided among those who praise the advert’s message and those who view it as an unnecessary and undeserved attack on masculinity.

In the space of just two days, it racked up more than 12 million views on YouTube. It has spawned countless think pieces, blogs, vlogs, articles, Facebook rants, petitions. For every person applauding Gillette’s stance, there is someone else calling for a boycott of its products.

The fact that an ad can capture the public imagination in the way it has speaks not only to the quality of the campaign but the thriving power of advertising itself. Many people predicted that the internet would eventually kill off advertising. The way we consume ads has changed with ad blocking software and subscription-based streaming services such as Netflix a clear threat to traditional methods.

Not only does the huge response to Gillette’s commercial prove that advertising is alive and well, but it also shows how marketing can be helped, not hindered, by the internet. You just have to play by a different set of rules.

Masculinity under the microscope  

Gillette cleverly plays with its tagline for the last three decades.  In the beginning, it changes “The best a man can get,” into “Is this the best a man can get?”

It would be like Nike saying “Should You Just Do It?” or L’Oreal saying “Are You Really Worth It?”. The simple addition of two words, “Is this”, transforms a notion that has been the bedrock of the company’s brand. “You’re awesome, you deserve the best” becomes “You could be better, let us help you.”

Shameless cash-in or skillful positioning?

Gillette’s campaign is part of a wider trend of corporations centring their marketing around social issues. It’s not enough to promote a product anymore, that product has to stand for something. Companies want customers to generate customer loyalty by associating brands with a set of values that people are passionate about. The stronger people feel about something, the more likely they are to seek out brands that have those same values. In these politically charged times, it’s not hard to find things that people are more passionate about.

Think back to last year when Nike made former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested racial inequality by refusing to stand for the US National Anthem, the face of its ad campaign. Or the year before that when Pepsi threw Kendall Jenner into the middle of a Black Lives Matter protest. These ads have been accused of so-called “Woke-washing” – playing lip-service to social injustice in a cynical attempt to sway consumers.

This same accusation could be made about Gillette’s ad. This blog is not going to judge whether it’s appropriate for companies to be capitalizing on real-world issues, but rather it will focus on how effective this strategy can be.

Here’s our hot take on the thinking behind Gillette’s campaign: It is effective and the reason it’s effective is because it’s marketed towards women just as much as men. It speaks to one audience while ostensibly being directed at another.

Why Gilette’s ad might be more effective than you think

With the sheer number of men online vowing never to let a Gillette razor to darken their chin, coupled with some high-profile critics of the ad, you might think the ad has spectacularly backfired. You might conclude Gillette has committed marketing suicide by seeking to alienate its target demographic.

Gillette probably isn’t worried in the slightest. In fact, the company’s board of directors is probably thrilled by the ad’s polarized response. The marketing agency behind the campaign clearly did everything it could to stir a debate and it worked. These are huge corporations, they don’t just do things for the sake of it. A lot of research would have gone into the campaign’s message.

So the question is, why take aim at toxic masculinity to sell men’s products? It might have something to do with the fact that a lot of traditional male products are purchased by women. Women purchase over 50 percent of traditional male products, including automobiles, home improvement products, and consumer electronics according to media strategist  Andrea Learned, in her book “Don’t Think Pink”. That point it worth reiterating, half of all male products are purchased by women.

Maybe women prefer using male products on themselves or maybe they are still responsible for making purchases on behalf of their husbands and partners in a large number of households. Although it’s not the 1950s any more we suspect a lot of conversations between heterosexual relationships are still happening along these lines:

Man: Honey, can you pick me up a razor when you go to the supermarket?

Woman: Sure sweetie, which kind would you like?

Man: Oh, I don’t care.

Do men even care any more about how their razors are marketed? Harry’s an online razor company has achieved a lot of success in that sector by going back to basics. The company deliberately eschews the style of razor marketing that focuses on the engineering of the product. Things have got so out of hand the razors end up sounding like they should come with a crash helmet and every single one claims to be “the best”. Harry taps into the fatigue around traditional razor marketing by offering a simple, straightforward solution.

Whatever the reason is for women purchasing so many traditional male products, it’s clear that the purchasing power of women is much stronger than men.

With this in mind, associating Gillette with the #MeToo appeals to a large proportion of the brand’s customers, women. The more vocal men are about their hatred for the campaign’s message, the more likely women are to feel passionate about and become loyal to Gillette.

If women are still buying a lot of razors on behalf of men, surely they feel better about buying a brand that stands for something they care about.