Gillette has launched a new marketing campaign, "The Best Men Can Be," with an ad that has gone viral.
The ad begins by depicting boys bullying other boys, women being harassed and cat-called, and a group of men excusing all of it as "boys will be boys." Gillette then asks if this is "the best a man can get." The rest of the ad portrays men pushing back against other men's bad behavior.
It's been polarizing, to say the least.
On one side, the campaign is being praised for tackling masculine stereotypes and challenging men to be better.
On the other side, some are saying that Gillette risks turning off customers who think the brand is shamelessly capitalizing on the #MeToo movement and practicing "leftist" politics. There are already calls for the brand to be boycotted.
So why has this ad caused such a large divide?
In my research on companies' use of pro-social messages, backlash usually arises due to some combination of the cause itself, a poor fit between the brand and the cause, and suspicion of the company's true motives.
Companies have backed various social issues for decades. Marriott, for example, organized fundraisers for the March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the health of mothers and babies, in the 1970s.
Today, customers expect companies to stand for something. According to a 2018 Edelman Earned Brand report, nearly two-thirds of consumers believe companies should take a stand on social or political issues.
However, studies have shown that, in order for the corporate activism to be warmly received, the cause usually needs to be connected to the company's product line or brand in some way.
This can happen when a company and its supported cause share similar values, such as Disney's partnership with Make-a-Wish for its "Share Your Ears" campaign. Both organizations strive to bring joy to children. Or it can happen when a company backs a cause that's aligned with its brand – think Nike's "Find Your Greatness" campaign, which works to curtail teenage obesity through fitness.
If the pairing doesn't appear authentic, consumers might wonder if the company is just trying to make a profit versus truly championing the cause. For example, the public questioned Pepsi's attempt to address racial tensions with its 2017 Kendall Jenner ad, in part because the pairing seemed so disingenuous: What does a can of Pepsi have to do with racial issues and police brutality?
The issue with the Gillette ad is not that it is supporting a cause, or even that Gillette is supporting the particular cause of toxic masculinity.
In fact, Gillette is not the only male-centric brand to have recently challenged masculine stereotypes. Just for Men launched its "Better Man" campaign in October 2018, which encourages men to be more compassionate and caring. In 2014, Dove Men+Care launched its "Care Makes a Man Stronger" campaign to explore the different ways men define masculinity.
Gillette, however, takes a more aggressive approach.
The ad immediately sets the tone with a heated issue, beginning with a slew of stories about the #MeToo movement. It goes on to discuss a host of problems – bullying, harassment, sexism – tied to toxic masculinity. About halfway through, Gillette calls for men to abandon dated models of masculinity and fight against the stereotype. It ends by galvanizing an entire generation with the powerful line "because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow."
While the ad and its message are poignant, its delivery is off: It compels an entire consumer base to back the #MeToo movement and to positively associate its brand with that cause.
But people don't like to be told what to do; for this same reason, ads rarely insist outright that people buy their product. Instead, they'll show how a product can be a part of people's lives, and might even improve them.
So why, a viewer might ask, would a company feel emboldened enough to imply that its customer base needs to do more on behalf of a particular cause?
It should be noted that Gillette seems to be genuinely supporting the cause. The company is donating US$1 million to nonprofits who support positive forms of masculinity.
But viewers might be questioning the company's motives because the ad doesn't directly tie the cause to what the brand is known for: shaving and grooming.
Should that matter? Surprisingly, it does.
In a study I conducted about how consumers perceive messages of female empowerment, showcasing the product – and tying the product to the message – seemed to resonate best.
For example, a Dodge campaign showing women using Ram trucks to do various activities, from working on a ranch to picking up kids from school, was well-received. But a Verizon commercial telling girls to embrace science didn't resonate as well, because the only clue that it was an ad for Verizon was a Verizon logo at the end.
Gillette is taking a stand, as many companies are doing.
They simply didn't properly execute the message.
(The writer Alan Abitbol is Assistant Professor of Communication, at University of Dayton).