Playing With Fire: Gillette Takes on Toxic Masculinity

If any press is good press, Gillette’s new campaign is advertising gold.

The spot takes aim at toxic masculinity and asks viewers to rethink the ways American culture defines manhood. The first half of its nearly two-minute run time shows boys and men fighting, bullying, harassing women and more before the music turns upbeat and the images switch to men breaking up fights, boosting their daughters’ self-esteem and calling each other out for bad behavior. It asks men to hold each other accountable and ends by asking men to challenge themselves to do more so they can get closer to their best.

While some are praising the brand for taking a stand against harmful behaviors that are often culturally associated with being male and excused with a “Boys will be boys” mentality, others have pointed out that an ad that spends almost a full minute portraying its target audience in a negative light might not be the best strategy to increase sales. Still others say that the ad strays into misandry by painting all masculinity as toxic, and by extension, demonizing men and boys. Some commenters have pointed out that all of those who perpetrate violence in the ad are white, while many of those encouraging a different approach are of other races. Some say that a billion-dollar company using feminism to sell male grooming products undermines the feminist principle that men and women are fundamentally equal.

Gillette claims on its campaign mini-site, TheBestMenCanBe.org, that it has taken a hard look at its past and is reflecting on the kind of messaging it wants to focus on in the future. The site’s copy stops short of admitting that Gillette has promoted misogynistic behaviors and attitudes in its own ads over the years, focusing instead on the neutral observation that “brands … play a role in influencing culture” and vowing to promote “positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.”

We asked four of our team members (two women and two men) to share their thoughts on the cultural importance of the new spot and how they think it influences the ongoing conversation.

Creative Team, Female: I applaud their efforts to tackle a sensitive and timely topic — and to put their brand on the line while doing so. However, the caricature-like aspect of everyone depicted trivializes the issue. It feels like a morality play, which may have worked in the 16th century, but feels didactic and patronizing now.

It’s also interesting that there are no positive male-female relationships depicted, which adds to the trivial aspect of the spot. Plus, multiple allegations of comment-deleting are surfacing; if they’re true, Gillette’s goal to start conversation seems disingenuous.

Creative Team, Male: If Gillette is correct, and there is a problem with toxic masculinity, then we should see a tidal wave of negative backlash to this video. Nobody likes to be called out for their faults, especially by an advertiser. And that is exactly what we see in the commentary: a lot of anger. A lot of threats. A lot of toxic male behavior. Here’s a representative sampling of YouTube comments:

  • “The boys watching today will be the trannies of tomorrow.”
  • “The war on masculinity is a war on mankind and family. You will not win.”
  • “What an excellent way to alienate your entire consumer base.”
  • “Toxic masculinity isn’t the problem. Lack of masculinity is.”
  • “Toxic femininity has gone too far.”
  • “I constantly hear woman complaining that men don’t approach them anymore. This commercial is part of the problem.”
  • “Someone needs to file a hate crime against this company for the pure hatred toward the male gender.”
  • “This ad is trash.”

Strategy Team, Female: Many are saying Gillette has taken a huge risk with this ad, but what they might not be considering is the amount of research P&G likely put into this before releasing it. They knew it would stir up controversy, but they also know that they’re a powerhouse in the market and have some room to take a stance against the problematic links between masculinity and behaviors like harassment, bullying and fighting. The ad points out that change must come from within, and ultimately promotes treating other humans with respect. As far as whether this will affect sales for Gillette, it might come down to the gender of those who purchase the razors.

Creative Team, Male: I went into watching this ad knowing there was controversy around it but not knowing why. After watching it, I thought maybe people on the far left were mad that Gillette used #MeToo incorrectly, since the ad isn’t entirely about sexual harassment. I was surprised to learn that men felt offended by the ad. A lot of the controversy seems to be that it paints ALL men as bad, but I don’t understand this interpretation when the ad clearly shows the opposite and delivers a strong message of “Don’t be a jerk, and stand up to people who are being jerks.” I hate the phrase “Boys will be boys” because of how often it’s used as an excuse for bad behavior. I like that Gillette focused on that phrase.

If this ad were to first air 10 years from now, it wouldn’t be controversial. At least I hope it wouldn’t.