Back in 1989, Gillette made a big impression on consumers with a Super Bowl ad using the tagline “The Best a Man Can Get.” For 30 years, the company successfully reinforced the high quality of its products via use of the tag, and was able to charge a price premium yet gain market share. In 2005, the highly valuable brand was acquired by mega-marketer Procter and Gamble for $57 billion.
As Gillette has come under increasing competition from low priced competitors such as Dollar Shave Club and Harry's, along with a resurgent Schick who is offering refill cartridges that fit Gillette razors, its market share has dropped from 70% to 50% over the past decade. Gillette has been forced to drop the price of its razors by about 15% over the past few years and is on the verge of losing master brand status.
It is within this competitive context that Gillette debuted its “We Believe in the Best in Men” ad campaign on its website yesterday, part of an overall shift to the slightly modified tag “The Best a Man Can Be.” The 1:48 length video starts out with images of remarkably troubled looking men as a narrator makes reference to bullying, sexual harassment, and toxic masculinity. It then poses the question “Is This the Best a Man Can Get.” The viewer then sees depictions of a series of very ugly and negative behaviors, including bullying, fighting, sexual harassment, and blatantly interfering with a woman speaking in the workplace. The ad goes on to state it is time for men to stop making excuses and to renounce the idea that “boys will be boys.” Gillette concludes that by calling for and showing images of men holding other men accountable and emphasizing that the boys of today will be the men of tomorrow.
Part of the Gillette’s motive for running the ad may be that there is recent research suggesting that millennials give more credit to brands using corporate social responsibility appeals (See Hoffman 2014 and Neilsen 2017). While there appears to be something to this generalization about millennials and CSR appeals, much more needs to be learned about the nuances of what works and what does not. In this case, it appears Gillette will learn a lesson about what not to do as pertains to corporate responsibility efforts.
Reaction to "We Believe in the Best in Men" has been overwhelmingly negative, with comments on its own Youtube channel running negative by an astonishing ten to one margin. There are those who really like the ad really like the campaign a lot and argue that it is simply trying to reinforce positive behavior. However, the much larger group who dislikes it includes many men who are saying the ad is insulting to men and full of stereotypes. What is perhaps most dangerous for Gillette, however, is the large number of posters who are threatening to never buy the product again.
So where did Gillette go wrong here? I think there are three main points to be made:
1) While corporate social responsibility appeals can be effective, corporations must be sensitive to the potential of consumers being skeptical of their motives, or not wanting to be told how to behave by a profit-motivated company.
The persuasion knowledge model popularized by Marian Friestad and Peter Wright suggests that people are aware of the persuasive intent of advertising, with the ultimate goal typically being to increase product sales. In this context, people hold some skepticism towards advertiser motives to being with. However, the real issue with the “Best a Man Can Be” from the point of view of its critics is that many men don’t think they need a corporation (especially one they are buying products from) telling them what it is to be masculine or to scolding them for not doing enough to address an issue.
Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette’s North American brand director is quoted by CNN as saying "We expected debate. Actually a discussion is necessary. If we don't discuss and don't talk about it, I don't think real change will happen.” It is not difficult to see how many men would find it presumptuous of Gillette to portray itself as a leader or role mode in masculinity, as opposed to influential others in their own lives such as clergy, fathers, mothers, and teachers. Moreover, many men would argue that there is no "debate" over the morality of the behaviors depicted in ad.
2. The creative in the “Best a Man Can Be” could be more effective if delivered differently
As is eloquently argued by fellow Forbes contributor Kim Elsesser, consumer behavior theory popularized by Robert Cialdini holds that people are motivated to fit in by gaining approval and avoiding disapproval. Approval is often related to fitting in with social norms. As Elsesser points out that while the ad clearly disapproves of the bad behaviors it depicts, it simultaneously suggests that most men engage in these behaviors. It follows that to fit in, or to be “masculine,” one would seek approval by engaging in those behaviors engaged in by a majority of the groups – not the “some men” that is “not enough” in the opinion of Gillette. Ultimately this is a mixed message that Cialdini's theory would argue is confusing and makes it unclear to a young male what the message about being masculine and fitting in really is.
3) Politically charged language should be avoided by advertisers
The use of the term “toxic masculinity” in the ad was a flat out mistake. While only mentioned quickly and briefly, the use of this term, which many men associate with a one-sided critique and stereotype of an entire gender. Regardless of how much some without marketing backgrounds would like to believe that companies taking political stances on is okay, alienating a substantial proportion of the target audience is never a good thing. Michael Jordan’s statement that he did not want to engage in political commentary because “Republicans buy shoes too,”remains wise thinking. Regardless of which political party or group may be alienated, it is simply bad marketing practice to offend significant numbers of your own consumers.
The shame of all of this is that Gillette surely could have devised a campaign focusing on positive encouragement of good behaviors without making sweeping generalizations about men and what it is to be masculine. The brand could have taken a lesson from the famous “Always: Like a Girl” Super Bowl ad from 2015 which delivered an almost universally well received message about female empowerment in a positive way. As it stands “The Best a Man Can Be” managed to unnecessarily alienate many of the companies customers, including many good men who largely agree with the underlying issues addressed in the ad.
While Gillette has a chance to modify the campaign and recover if it admits a mistake and makes some modifications, if it continues down the current path this campaign will be remembered as nothing short of an all-time marketing blunder.