Gillette needs to sharpen up if it wants to stop ‘toxic masculinity’

Paul Blanchard
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Source: Getty

You’re looking sharp. You’re looking good. You’ve come so far.

Clean-cut, handsome alpha males do lots of photogenically masculine things. They hang out dressed in tuxedos, have their tie adjusted by their attractive girlfriend/wife, do a fist clench after a landline phone call at work, and show their young son how to shave and lift weights. They jump hurdles. They get married. And, of course, they shave.

If you’re around my age or older, I’m sure you’ll remember Gillette’s cheesy but rather sweet TV adverts from the 1980s with the brilliant strapline: 'The best a man can get'. Thirty years after those Top Gun-style montages of manliness, Gillette’s new TV advert has tried to tackle so-called 'toxic masculinity' − with mixed results.

According to who you believe, the divisive one minute, 48 second “short film” (“We Believe: The Best Men Can Be”), is either a brave attempt to change social attitudes or clunky virtue-signalling that stereotypes and demeans men – the company’s core customer.

In the ad, Gillette asks, "Is this the best a man can get?" before showing images of bullying and sexual harassment, as well as sexist and aggressive male behaviour. It then shows men acting in a more enlightened way – for example, intervening to prevent these behaviours. ‘“Boys will be boys”? Isn't it time we stopped excusing bad behavior?’ Gillette tweeted.

At the time of writing, the ad had been viewed nearly 20 million times. Feedback was far more negative than positive (968,000 “thumbs down”, 519,000 “thumbs up”). “I’m not sure on what planet this is how you sell your product to people,” one man wrote on social media in response. “Can you imagine anybody ever insulting women like this?” And that was one of the politer comments.

There was, however, some praise for the ad; Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, said that it was thoughtful and a “must watch”. Others remarked that the ad had good intentions, but added that it was poorly executed.

In my view, the ad isn't all bad. It has some clever twists and images, but it’s too wordy. It has a simple message (a certain type of masculinity is damaging for men, women and society and must change). Somehow, though, it all seems a bit convoluted, which blunts its emotional impact.

The men in the ad mainly seem one-dimensional, like those stock images you see in online videos to illustrate generic scenes in work and family life. It also feels very negative, which could alienate viewers who sympathise with the ad’s message, but are left feeling patronised and stereotyped.

Contrast this with great adverts on controversial subjects, such as Procter & Gamble’s award-winning “Like a Girl” (about the limits society can place on girls), “It’s Time” (gay marriage), or Nike’s “Dream Crazy” (starring Colin Kaepernick, an American football star who “took a knee” for the US national anthem to protest against police brutality and racism).

The ads used different techniques but have similarities. They kept their message clear and focused on what they were for rather than against. After the Nike ad there were predictions of a customer boycott. In fact, the sportswear giant’s sales increased by 31% in the days after it aired, according to research company Edison Trends.

Ultimately, I applaud the aims of the ad – but not the execution. It’s certainly not the best social message that a man (or a woman) can get. If I had been at a test screening, I would have asked for a major re-write – or scrapped the ad altogether. Given that masculinity is a complex and slippery concept, a slow-burn campaign on modern masculinity, including podcasts, sponsored debates and even festivals could have helped create a more positive and nuanced result.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.