It may just be a total coincidence. Or maybe not. Proctor & Gamble’s $8 billion writedown last month in the value of the 118-year old shaving business company, Gillette, that it purchased for $57 billion in 2005, followed closely upon the release of a highly controversial ad, which had little to say about the great shaves men could expect when using a Gillette razor, and a great deal to say, in scolding tones, about toxic masculinity. Social Justice Warriors hailed it as a great message. Ordinary men and a surprising number of women were revulsed by it.
In any case, the fact is that the ad was brutally misandric, the backlash against the ad was fierce, and P & G is taking a huge financial hit. Yeah, there are all kinds of other possible reasons for the nosedive—a shrinking market for shaving, increased competition—but it seems that just in case it wasn’t a coincidence, Gillette has decided to step off the “woke” corporation train, and go back to basics in their marketing.
The most obvious rubric of basic marketing—and you would think this is something they would already have known before the debacle, so the fact they didn’t tells us a lot about the brain freeze at the corporate level—is that if you have a defined target market for your product, the best strategy for upping sales isn’t to crap all over that market by telling them they are responsible for all social ills of society, but that here, use our product, and while you’re using it, think about how much better you can be as a human being, you piece of sh*t.
At the time of the blowback, Gillette thought they could ride out the storm on the strength of all the students at Intersectional U, who thought it was the best ad ever. They even produced another ad called “First Shave,” in which a father initiates his transgender son into shaving. Nobody objected to it, even if only about .01% of Gillette’s market could relate to it, and another percentage, who knows how many, were doubtless made uncomfortable by it, so it was probably a wash sales-wise.
But that seems to have been their last conscious foray into social do-goodery. (I say “conscious” advisedly. Read on.)
The message of Gillette’s latest ad, launched last week, is full-bore traditionally man-friendly, featuring a real-life Australian firefighter and personal trainer, Ben Ziekenheiner, getting ready for work. Ben’s morning toilette shows him calmly shaving – firefighters must be clean-shaven so their masks fit properly – but with interspersed scenes of raging fires and the men who combat them. As he shaves, his little girl looks up at him adoringly. The ad ends with a loving father-daughter hug, and Ben’s insightful remark that “it’s not the fire, it’s more the constant reminder of who you might leave behind…”
You notice there are only two elements in the ad besides Ben: the scary fire that kills people if they cannot be saved, and the vulnerable innocent child, who expresses her fears for her dad in a simple drawing of a house with flames shooting out the windows that she gives to him, a gesture he is very sensitive to, evoking a protective embrace. You notice as well that there is no woman in the ad, not even a mother who looks upon the scene with approval.
For she is unnecessary. Think about it. If the child had been a little boy, he would have been watching his father shave with a view to his future self as a man. This little girl is watching her father shave as her future womanly self will relate to the men in her life: husband, brothers, son. She will associate shaving with manliness; she will feel gratitude that men do the things she is not equipped to do, making her safer and more confident in whatever life has in store for her, which is highly unlikely to be anything involving anything like her father’s high-risk job.
This ad is a 180 degree turn away from the you-can-do-better ad. First, it doesn’t talk about men in general. It focuses on one guy that most men can relate to, and admire. And what a guy Ben is! On a scale of one to ten, Ben’s male positivity hits eleven! He is a manly man, built up through training to perfection of the male form. He is also a sensitive man. And he is the kind of man who channels his manliness into areas that are the furthest thing from “toxic”: fathering, service to his community and physical protection of the helpless. He has a right to feel fear, but what he worries about most is not being there for his family.
These three functions—often expressed as the three “Ps”: Parenthood, protection and productivity—happen to be the three necessary components for a healthy male presence in society. The fact that Ben is also a risk-taker is the icing on this marketing cake. For the quintessential trait of manliness, not always expressed in such heroic fashion as firefighting, is a willingness to take risks.
Gillette thinks that this ad represents their decision to “shift the spotlight from social issues to local heroes.” In fact, its message restores to heterosexual men the respect and valorization that has been sadly lacking in our culture. Considering the ramifications that are occurring as a result of men being told they are not needed on the cultural voyage, I can’t think of a social issue more badly in need of attention. And so this “local heroes” ad by Gillette is, therefore, paradoxically enough, not a shift away from promotion of social justice, but its very embodiment.