Every so often an advert comes along that sparks debate, controversy, and backlash. Last month it was Iceland’s politically charged Christmas campaign in collaboration with Greenpeace which highlighted the plight of orangutans as a result of palm oil extraction, which was subsequently banned but received millions of views on social media and was discussed throughout the media.
This month, Gillette’s advertising campaign, playing on their slogan ‘the best a man can get’ with the statement ‘the best a man can be’, has caused widespread discussion and debate. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the advert shows men, haunted by accusations of sexual assault and harassment, challenging the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality and acting as role models for the next generation by showing them how to respect not only women but each other and hold each other accountable for bad behaviour. For example, we see a man telling another man that it’s ‘not cool’ to inappropriately flirt with a woman in the street, and a father breaking up his son’s fight, claiming that ‘that’s not how we treat each other’.
Inevitably, amongst the praise for tackling toxic masculinity, lad culture, and the uncertainty surrounding male identity in the post #MeToo world, the criticism has been relentless. Numerous conservative men, threatened by the supposed assault on their masculinity, have tweeted their disgust and claim to now be boycotting the brand, with Piers Morgan, as eloquently and woke as ever, leading the way, arguing that the campaign represents ‘absurd virtue-signalling PC guff’ which fuels ‘the pathetic global assault on masculinity. Let boys be damn boys’.
But have we been letting ‘boys be boys’ for too long? Ultimately, lad mentality is immensely damaging not only for women and girls worldwide who find themselves at the unfortunate receiving end of sexist comments, inappropriate flirting and, at the most extreme end, sexual assault and rape, but for millions of men and boys who grow up being told they must be ‘tough’ and ‘manly’, that crying is ‘for girls’, that they play sports ‘like a girl’, that wearing pink or playing with dolls is ‘emasculting’. Male suicide counts for approximately three-quarters of all suicides made in the UK, in part as an uncomfortable consequence of the culture of men being told to ‘man up’ and not talk about their feelings. The conversation is changing, inspired by the extremely successful Movember campaign, but most men still feel uncomfortable speaking to friends about their mental health as a result of this culture which permeates all sectors of society.
As a marketing and PR strategy, Gillette has shown that they are so much more than a company which sells razors, something inherently associated with masculinity. By redefining the concept of what it is to be a man in today’s world, the company shows social responsibility, an appreciation of their reach and influence, particularly for the generation of younger men who frequently access YouTube and social media platforms, and promotes positive and attainable images. As advertisements traditionally play on our insecurities, promoting perfection as a goal which we feel inadequate for being unable to achieve, surely an advert which promotes something more realistic, more inspiring, and more attainable can only be a good thing?
Maybe, as a feminist, and as not a man, I can’t understand the logic or rationale behind the backlash and why some feel so threatened. Maybe, as an optimist, I’m more positive and hopeful than others about the power of an advertising campaign to challenge assumptions and the dominant discourses in society. Or maybe I’m just naïve. But for me, those complaining that their masculinity is being threatened by an advert are probably those whose masculinity, sense of identity and certainty in themselves is weakest. They are those who feel threatened that their shitty behaviour is being challenged and are uncomfortable about being seen as wrong. They are those that will continue to make inappropriate comments about women, get angry that their boss is female, or encourage their sons to ‘man up’, get into fights, and objectify their female counterparts because that’s ‘what boys do’. But it’s about time society got a wake-up call to the dangers of toxic masculinity for all genders, ages, and social groups, and Gillette’s foray into this murky world is a step in the right direction, and one that I hope will inspire a change in not only advertising but society’s assumptions, norms and challenges.
Congratulations Gillette. I may even start buying your razors.
You can watch the advert here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koPmuEyP3a0