Shaving company’s newest marketing scheme: alienating core customers

February 8, 2019

People just love it when profit-motivated, multi-billion-dollar companies preach to them great moral messages. This can be seen in Gillette’s new advertisement: “The Best Men Can Be,” which can only be described as a smash hit, earning 750,000 likes and a whopping 1.35 million dislikes on Youtube.

It showed a whole lot of men engaging in behaviors stereotypically associated with their sex, like bullying, mansplaining, cat-calling and standing in line chanting “Boys will be boys” while the narrator scornfully condemns these actions and claims to “believe in the best in men.”

With comments like: “My wife’s boyfriend loves this” and “Did… did Gillette just shame its entire customer base? HAHAHAHAHAHA,” clearly, people couldn’t be happier with this wonderful new ad. But why?

In his immensely insightful article on Forbes, “Why Gillette’s New Ad is Toxic,” Charles Taylor, a professor of marketing at the Villanova University of Business and a senior research fellow at the Center for Marketing and Consumer Insights, explains that there are three main reasons why the ad was such a huge success.

First, consumers could be skeptical of the ad’s motives, or they might not want to be told how to behave by a company whose interest clearly is to make profit. They aren’t oblivious to, as Taylor puts it, “the persuasive intent” of advertising, with the goal being to raise sales, nor do they need a corporation telling them how their sex should behave or to be scolded for not doing enough to address certain issues.

Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette’s North American Brand Director, was quoted by CNN, saying that, “We expected debate. Actually a discussion is necessary. If we don’t discuss and don’t talk about it, I don’t think real change would happen.”

However, any person capable of critical thinking might have doubts about the authority of the company on the subject and the validity of its point of contention. One might think it is presumptuous for Gillette to sell itself as a forefront of social change about masculinity when nobody realistically believes that a company selling sanitary products really cares about anything other than profit.

One might even argue that the actions depicted in the ad are not topics for debate because they are universally condemned and not representative of the majority of men’s behaviors.

The second reason why the ad was a colossal accomplishment (okay, I’ll drop the obnoxious sarcasm) was that the whole “the best men can be” narrative was just done poorly. Taylor cites another Forbes writer, Kim Ellesser, who argues that the ad sends a mixed message to young males according to the consumer behavior theory popularized by Robert Cialdini.

The theory states that there are two norms that motivate people to fit in. First, they seek approval and avoid disapproval. Second, they like to do what is popular. The ad, while disapproving toxic behaviors, fails to clarify that these behaviors are not perpetrated by most men, which shouldn’t be an unreasonable assumption. Instead, it suggests that most men are in fact bullies and harassers. Thus, following Cialdini’s theory, if a gullible young male wants to fit in with others and learn how to be masculine, then he might perceive that he should be a bully and harasser too after watching this ad, which fails in its mission to (supposedly) persuade men to curb toxic behaviors.

To add to this second point, I believe that principally why people weren’t amused with the ad is that it paints men in such a bad light that it’s just plain insulting. And the last thing a business wants to do is to insult its customers. Instead of using positive reinforcement like showing men at their best, like being good fathers, sons and husbands, the ad makes sweeping generalizations about men and what it is to be masculine. It’s not difficult to imagine that even men who largely agree with the underlying issues presented in the ad might feel alienated as well.

Third, the use of politically charged language was a big no-no for advertising. Using the term “toxic masculinity,” which, as Taylor eloquently points out, “many men associate with a one-sided critique and stereotype of an entire gender,” in the ad was surely a mistake. Some might think that companies taking political stances should be okay, but the fact of the matter is that alienating a substantial proportion of the customer base is never a good thing. As a counter example, the statement by Michael Jordan that he did not want to engage in political commentary because “Republicans buy shoes too” remains wise thinking.

Following the overwhelmingly negative responses toward Gillette’s new ad, people are now calling for boycott for its products and those of its parent company, Procter and Gamble. While I doubt that the monolith that is P&G will suffer any substantial financial loss going forward, this new marketing campaign was a total flop and has certainly cost the company loyal customers. This should teach any company trying to take stances on politics in their advertisements a valuable lesson: Maybe not.

Menu Title