by Matthew Walsh

Cashing in on ‘wokeness’: Why the Gillette advert is just an advert

Gillette may have made waves with their latest marketing strategy, but is the advert really anything for people to get het up about? Matthew Walsh discusses jumping on the bandwagon, and why he isn’t bothered about the video.

The short film from Gillette asks viewers ‘Is this the best a man can get?’

When I finished watching the new Gillette ad on YouTube last week, my initial reaction was ‘is that it?’ Given the sensationalist backlash and effusive praise I’d seen swirling around online, I was surprised by how tame the short film is.

It contains built-in responses to criticism, such as saying some men are doing enough and the classic won’t somebody think of the children? In a way I was angry; angry at the lack of reaction the advert incited in me. I’d prepared myself to scream ‘Let Boys be Boys’ at my screen. Ultimately, they elicited that anger by having not made something I could get angry about. Who said advertising wasn’t complex?

The overall message seemed to be one of We know what you want and we’ll give it to you in exchange for your money. It is, at least to some extent, a cynical marketing drive both for publicity and cashing in on ‘wokeness’ value.

A senior brand director at Gillette has stated that they were not seeking controversy and it was just a brand update. This makes the ad feel somewhat disingenuous and undermines any sincerity the director injected. The director, Kim Gehring, is to the apparent dismay of many, a woman. This is something which has fuelled the idea that the ad is anti-male.

Critics of this should consider the argument often used against greater representation in film – that roles should just go to the ‘best person’ for the job. It’s hard to argue that Gehring did anything but a good job in increasing brand awareness, and moralising a company in danger of appearing outdated to the younger portion of the market.

‘Nobody involved in the debate seems to be mentioning whether or not Gillette makes the best product’

Instead of being an outlier, the campaign is part of a growing trend of adverts conveying a political message or overt social commentary. It feels a natural development from holistic branding and the selling a lifestyle via a product. Nobody involved in the debate seems to be mentioning whether or not Gillette makes the best product or if it is good value for consumers. Even more cynically, Gillette is having to compete with a growing number of online razor subscription companies, which feel more modern and in line with consumer habits for other services. In capitalism convenience nearly always wins.

The ad itself focuses on undeniably widespread issues, try as some men might to deny their pervasiveness. Personally, I felt the ad not only pointed out problems, but also demonstrated solutions and positive proactive behaviour. This is an important distinction that those who see it as an attack seem to have ignored, or perhaps their bias has precluded them from noticing.

Anything which promotes people being multi-dimensional characters rather than reduced to stereotypes has the potential to positively impact society. I also don’t have a problem with a conservative man continuing to believe they are ostensibly a good person, one of my closest friends is a conservative. However, the reaction has felt part of the same simplistic and tribal framing of issues which brought us Brexit.

As a graduate of American history I am aware that the so-called crisis of masculinity is nothing new, though those who believe Gillette will now add a sixth barbed blade to each razor, because the ad says men are bad and deserve to be punished, see it as a new development. The outrage from those men, who see it as an attack because they perceive themselves as above introspection – a symptom of being in the dominant societal demographic – stems from not being used to questions about whether any of their behaviours or attitudes need to change with time.  

‘People don’t like change, as it’s often framed as losing something’

The reality is that nearly everyone learns some prejudices growing up and to question whether you hold particularly prevalent ones from time to time, is an important tool for a society to shed any unwanted skin and arguably makes you a better citizen, rather than a bad guy. The reassuring thing when being asked to change something, a request which seems inherently daunting to humans, is that almost everyone you know could improve too.   

However, people don’t like change, as it’s often framed as losing something; in this instance losing the ability to be a traditionally strong man, rather than gaining tolerance of public sensitivity. This produces annoyance at being asked not to harass women in the street while on your way to buy your son the latest toy – a robot with a built-in wolf-whistling AI when it detects a Barbie doll nearby. For full disclosure, I am not a masculine man. The fall of alpha masculinity could be for me what the extinction of the dinosaurs was for mammals.

The advert itself only really matters if Gillette makes substantial and enduring changes to policy, such as addressing pricing inequality between men’s and women’s razors, rather than just exploiting pathos and ethos. Indeed, the hypocrisy of Gillette allowed the conservative backlash, and created an illusion that their concerns are about the sincerity of the company, rather than their own fragility. I wouldn’t go so far as to call those men snowflakes. I’m glad they feel safe enough on Twitter to express their feelings and vulnerability about seemingly banal issues.

One of the things that makes the rolling news cycle and political apathy so possible, is how fleeting certain emotions are. I find it difficult to hold onto anger at a specific thing for long periods of time, especially if that thing is somewhat abstract. This helps to explain the trend of rage and forget. Religious institutions in the West have historically provided a buffer between people and self-critique. With the diminished sway they hold in the UK, maybe there’s something in being sceptical about receiving that direction from large corporations instead.

‘The ad felt more a hollow jumping on the bandwagon’

Conversely, Gillette may be attempting to critique their own advertising approaches of the past, and trying to lead by example. This brought to mind a Mitchell and Webb sketch comparing women’s advertising to men’s with the taglines “Sort yourself out” and “you’re already brilliant”. You can guess which one applied to men.

Personally, the ad felt more a hollow jumping on the bandwagon than a sincere attempt to improve society. However, the issues highlighted should not be dismissed on that basis, but perhaps we should engage with them without the aid of international corporations.

By Matthew Walsh

Matthew writes about history, cultural affairs and music. He also enjoys writing short fiction.