Gillette’s new advertising campaign, which reworked their longstanding tagline for the men’s shaving products from “The best a man can get” to “Is this the best a man can get?” has caused a kerfuffle. Reliably fuelled by Piers Morgan, who objected to its anti toxic masculinity message, it’s tempting to file the whole thing in the folder marked, “proof that Piers Morgan is not the sharpest blade in the shaving kit” and leave it at that. But this is one social media hoo-ha that deserves our attention.
Good advertising doesn’t just reflect culture. It shapes it
The Gillette furore matters because it betrays the disquieting and mysterious power of brands in popular culture. This story is one of advertising playing catch up with identity politics. It stars an ageing powerhouse brand facing an existential crisis and an industry in the grip of a moral one, both racing to keep pace with technological disruption and profound shifts in the moral compass of popular culture.
Advertising isn’t art in disguise. It can be and often is artistic – thoughtful, entertaining, important even – but the real point of advertising is to persuade. Where there is a profit to be made – that is, when the campaign isn’t for an NGO or political entity – that means to persuade people to buy more stuff.
The distinction is important because in recent years the line between ads that are about selling and ads that are about “social impact” has become increasingly blurred. Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign is a different ballgame from, say, Channel 4’s “Meet the Superhumans” Paralympics campaign and, in turn, from Dove’s pioneering but still controversial “Campaign for Real Beauty”.
This is problematic because one of the marketing industry’s favourite words is “authenticity”. Consumers (that’s us) won’t tolerate being deliberately or cynically misled, at least not any more. Social media now means one wrong move can trigger share price free fall. Younger consumers especially – who’ve grown up knowing nothing else – are extremely brand literate and brutally unforgiving of either aesthetic or moral missteps. Marketers are caught between the compulsion to take a risk and the need to stay employed.
The power of product versus the power of the brand
Gillette is owned by Procter & Gamble (P&G) who spent US $7bn on advertising in 2018 across their portfolio of household names that includes Olay, Tampax, Ariel and Max Factor. Gillette sits at number 32 on Forbes most-valuable brands list, worth $17.7bn. When it comes to marketing, especially product marketing, these people know what they’re doing.
P&G have been the past masters of product-led category innovation for decades. Gillette was the pioneer of the adjustable razor, multiple blades and pivoting heads among other things. You can read the whole history on their website. So it’s conspicuous that this ad – which leads unashamedly with brand, not with product – has appeared now, at a time when the whole shaving category is in flux.
Two big challengers, Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club – both over-delivering on convenience and personalisation and cultivating a pared-back, modern aesthetic – are slicing off chunks of Gillette’s market share and cultural capital. Although Gillette has already cut prices by 12 per cent in an attempt to fight back, the new competition has forced P&G to go “back to brand” in their counter-attack. (As a wry aside, the Gillette web page on the Forbes brand power list carries a giant digital banner ad for Harry’s.)
Is Gillette sincere?
Aesthetically, it is fair to say that Gillette has looked old hat. Its machismo is less to do with the strapline, “The best a man can get”, than with decades of blue and silver tinged heteronormativity. Add that to the fact that Gillette’s stablemate, with the same North American CMO, markets shaving products to women in Barbie-pink packaging called things like “Venus Treasures” and it’s all just a bit, well, cringe.
P&G marketing is led by Marc Pritchard, its global chief brand officer. He’s been with the company 37 years and is as close to a superstar as you get in marketing. He’s unlikely to have personally signed this ad off, although he is dead set on making gender-friendliness a key aspect of his legacy. His most recent appearance at Cannes Lions, the annual “Oscars of the advertising industry”, an earnest panel discussion on gender diversity in the media with rapper Queen Latifah, TV journalist Katie Couric and feminist advertising industry legend Madonna Badger, is a case in point.
Fear and self-loathing in ad-land is boosting ‘brand purpose’
The advertising industry, for all its swagger, has always had a touch of self-loathing about it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has not been immune to #MeToo – several high profile executives have left their jobs following accusations of sexual impropriety. Cannes Lions, was a noticeably smaller, more sober affair last year – a symbol of an industry that feels chastised and is struggling to retain the best talent. Against this backdrop, it is perhaps not surprising that advertising executives have become so drawn to making ads that “do good” – earnest tearjerkers to go down well with awards show juries which are, incidentally, also made up of advertising executives. Although, as Ben Southgate, founder of brand consultancy Highbeam sagely puts it: “If the ad industry is having a post #MeToo moral crisis it shouldn’t be using clients’ money to make itself feel better.”
On the surface of it, the team behind this ad have done some things right in terms of authenticity. It was directed by Kim Gehrig, the celebrated female director of “This Girl Can” and “Viva la Vulva” for Swedish brand Libresse. Gillette appointed Gehrig through the initiative Free the Bid, which aims to improve access of female directors to the best gigs and, incidentally, features Pritchard prominently on its website homepage. It’s a predictably depressing sidenote to this story that Gehrig has been trolled horrendously for being a “man-hater” since the ad went live, including the release of her personal details, death and rape threats.
Is the campaign actually any good?
The verdict from those in the know is that Gillette’s main crime isn’t in the strategy, per se, but the execution and the timing. Lucy Jameson, founder of Uncommon London, an independent advertising agency thinks that, “Executionally, it’s not brilliant. A little bit preachy and what I’d call ‘your strategy is showing’. It just feels like they could have been a bit more creative with it. To English eyes it lacks a bit of humour.”
You can’t please everybody all the time of course, but the public reaction has been pretty brutal, seeing the ad as scarcely more than a didactic cliché – lazy, skin-deep, uninspiring and limp. How can that happen from a brand with so much money, and a team who almost certainly will have consumer tested it extensively? You can’t help but feel that somewhere along the line, somebody has missed the point, or worse, can’t be bothered to try.
Southgate isn’t sure it matters either way. “No one has talked about this brand for years and now over 420,000 people are debating its merits across YouTube and Instagram. Triggering that volume of debate about an important issue can only be a good thing.” He goes on to say, “As a father, I feel like the strategy and message is strong.”
P&G come late to the identity party
The truth is, it was Unilever, P&G’s major competitor, that bought Dollar Shave Club for $1bn. It is Unilever that ditched the gleefully misogynistic positioning of their men’s brand LYNX (AXE outside the UK) way back in 2015 and made it Britain’s fastest growing brand of 2017. And it is Unilever, not P&G, that has driven the formation of the Unstereotype Alliance, “a thought and action platform that uses advertising as a force for good to drive positive change. It seeks to eradicate harmful gender-based stereotypes.” As Jameson puts it, “Unilever have always been much more values-led and P&G much more product-led. It’s in the DNA of the companies.”
We won’t know for at least a year whether Gillette’s really is a cautionary tale or a triumph.
What we do know is that from consumer goods to retail banking, “legacy” brands are in an unforgiving competitive environment. They cannot afford to be on the back foot. Consumers are increasingly attuned to the moral legitimacy of the brands they buy. If they think you don’t mean it, they won’t buy it – literally. Recognising that past successes are no guarantee of future glory is the first step. But tinkering with your brand, whether or not your intentions are honourable, your timing is perfect and your execution flawless, can’t be all of the answer.
The Discourse of Advertising by Guy Cook is an accessible starting point if you’d like to learn to decode how advertisements work, culturally and commercially.
All Marketers Are Liars by Seth Godin is an ‘underground classic’ that explains modern marketing’s obsession with ‘authenticity’.
The Mask You Live In, a film by the Representation Project, ‘follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.’
The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority published this report, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm about gender stereotyping in advertising.
The UNstereotype Alliance website amalgamates resources produced by the advertising industry about gender equality and representation.
#womennotobjects is the groundbreaking campaign made by Badger and Winters, the agency founded by Madonna Badger who appeared on stage with Marc Pritchard in Cannes.
This interview with Marc Pritchard for WARC, an advertising industry media brand, explains his ‘deep personal connection to purpose’.
Find out more about the history of Gillette’s product innovation.