Gillette debate cuts two ways

A new ad from the iconic razor brand has set the internet on fire with debates around Gillette's new The Best Men Can Be positioning - this and other recent developments prove gender politics post #MeToo still have a long way to go.

What a curious week for gender relations and debates about what it means to be a man in the modern post #MeToo society.

The coverage of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ divorce, which was announced last week, concentrated on the impact of the settlement and how much money his wife, award-winning novelist MacKenzie, would receive from their estimated $136 billion fortune following the split.

As an article in Wired pointed out, the coverage revolved around MacKenzie becoming the richest woman in the world and what would happen to "his" wealth, rather than the fact that she is already one of the richest women in the world by virtue of being a fundamental part of this power couple.

MacKenzie helped Bezos start his company and took just as much a risk as he did by upending their comfortable life in Manhattan in 1994 to travel over to Washington State and start up Amazon.

As she once said: "I was there when he wrote the business plan, and I worked with him and many others represented in the converted garage, the basement warehouse closet, the barbecue-scented offices, the Christmas-rush distribution centers, and the door-desk filled conference rooms in the early years of Amazon’s history."

She also took primary responsibility for raising the couple’s four kids. The mainstream coverage of the divorce betrays some surprisingly old-fashioned views about women.

Separately, this week started for me by writing a story about Ogilvy’s global PR lead Stuart Smith leaving the WPP firm at the end of the month to go in-house and become CMO and chief growth officer at Vegolutionary Foods.

I was surprised when the article was published to receive numerous emails and questions asking why I didn’t mention in the story that Smith is married to Gail Becker, the CEO and founder of the company he is joining.

I didn’t mention it because neither Smith nor Becker had mentioned the fact in their direct quotes or in the press release statement that accompanied the news.

I feel comfortable mentioning it now because it was mentioned by Ogilvy CEO John Seifert in a statement Ogilvy put out once the story had gone live. It didn’t arrive in time for our original news story but I included it in a follow-up piece I did with Seifert about the future of the PR function within Ogilvy post-Smith.

One person said it was very relevant to the story because "it's very unlikely Stuart would have gone there if it wasn't run by Gail." It set me thinking: Would people be asking the same question if it was a woman going to work with her husband’s company? I don’t think so.

Seifert said some exceptionally nice things about Smith, but I have to say the first line of his statement – "Stuart Smith will be leaving Ogilvy at the end of January and joining his wife, Gail Becker, in an exciting new venture called Vegolutionary Foods" – does come over a little patronizing.

Let’s give people the benefit of the doubt, but isn’t there a little subtext in these comments that sounds to me like people intimating that Smith is heading off to help out his wife’s little business?

Well, newsflash: Becker’s company is actually a business phenomenon that initially took off around its first product, a gluten-free pizza brand called Cauilipower, and has grown extraordinarily in 18 months to be in 17,500 stores and producing revenues heading for $50 million off the back of 10 million pizza sales.

Another way of looking at Smith’s move is to view it as him departing for one of the most exciting new enterprises in the U.S. with the prospect of earning millions of dollars if and when the new food company goes public or is bought out by one of the food giants.

What’s this got to do with the debate around Gillette’s new ad, you might ask?

Well, the discussion around the ad seems to have brought out the worst in terms of reactions and betrayed some of the least attractive traits of the "alpha male."

We Believe calls on men to change their behavior in light of the #MeToo movement. The U.S.-specific social and digital campaign kicked off Sunday with a short film and 30-second version of the ad on YouTube, followed up on social media on Monday.

In the ad, the brand calls out "bullying," "sexual harassment," and "toxic masculinity," and questions, "Is this the best a man can get?" It then encourages men to hold one another accountable for their behavior.

It got right up the nose of pundits including Piers Morgan, which some might see as a very good thing, on the grounds that anything that annoys this particular pompous TV pontificator and Daily Mail columnist has an immediate validity.

Morgan decried Gillette for producing "a supremely patronizing ad that portrays men as a bunch of bullying, harassing, abusing, and generally awful human beings who all need to be taught how to behave better - especially towards women." He exhorts Gillette to let "boys be boys." He claims to spend thousands of pounds a year on Gillette products and that, "They need me just as they need all their male customers they threw under the PC bus."

OK, Morgan has his shtick and very successful it has been too in rebuilding a TV persona that has caused his career to bounce back after a very humbling experience fronting a short-lived nightly talk show on CNN that bombed and limped on until it was cancelled after three years.

But, whether you like the Gillette ad or not, you can’t seriously equate sexual harassment, bullying, mansplaining, and toxic masculinity with "boys being boys." As the ad says, that’s "not cool, bro’."

Another newsflash: The debate also ignores the fact that men aren’t the only people who buy razors. According to several studies, women are still responsible for 70-80% of all consumer purchasing, through buying power and influence. They certainly buy their sons’ razors.

Women also use razors themselves. And yes, there is of course a certain irony in the fact that Gillette, the company selling us the new idea of The Best Men Can Be, also packages up the same razors in pink and other more "feminine" colors and sells them at a premium to women.

One thing’s for sure, everyone has been talking about Gillette and its razors this week. And, just as with previous disruptive campaigns like this from brands including Nike and Levis, don’t assume that the initial backlash and furor on social media means there will ultimately be a long-term negative effect on sales or public opinion.

In fact, a survey from Morning Consult released yesterday seemed to show the ad had been well received by consumers and positioned Gillette as socially responsible.

When respondents were asked how they felt about the ad, 61% gave it high marks, 23% were neutral, and just 17% gave it low marks. Current customers, the ones Morgan said Gillette had thrown under the PC bus, received the ad most positively, at 64% favorability and, unsurprisingly, women liked it more than men – 64% to 57%.

In terms of "internet backlashes," only 8% of respondents reported reading, hearing, or seeing something negative about Gillette in the past week, while 20% reported seeing something positive – less than a third, 32%, said they had heard anything at all about Gillette in the past week.

Most importantly for the marketers over at Gillette’s owner, Procter & Gamble, Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club customers are more likely to buy Gillette after watching the ad – 56% are more likely versus 18% who are less likely.

So, contrary to Piers Morgan’s outbursts on Twitter, it’s not just hipsters in Brooklyn with long beards that don’t use razors who are buying into the philosophy behind Gillette’s new brand positioning.

Funnily enough, the backlash semes to have been much more pronounced in the U.K. than it has in the U.S. And the questions about my Smith story not mentioning his wife also mainly came from the U.K. too. Maybe #MeToo hasn't had quite such an impact across the Atlantic as it has in the U.S.

Interestingly, Morning Consult came out with some research after the notorious Pepsi activation with Kendall Jenner that provoked much ridicule on social media. It also showed that the kneejerk opprobrium that follows these campaigns isn’t necessarily matched by the target audience and the longer-term impact on the brand.

Marketers and communicators are constantly being told that consumers increasingly expect brands and corporations to take a stand on social issues, and that’s what P&G did with this activation.

Respondents to a PRWeek poll on the topic showed 46% believe brands should speak up and 35% say attention equals success – only 19% said P&G was trying too hard.

As the CPG behemoth’s VP of global communications and advocacy, Damon Jones, commented on Twitter: "Some say we should stick to selling soap (or in this case razors). I’ve never taken lightly when told what to say or when to speak. Some things simply need to be said. Because other things need to change. Words matter. Actions do too. Because conversation leads to understanding and understanding leads to change. Here's the latest from Gillette, inviting men to step up and be better, individually and collectively."

You can criticize the creative or have a view on the specific tactics or ways of activating, but reactions should never be an excuse to return to opinions and behaviors more redolent of the caveman.

I don’t know why in this day and age, but I was shocked by some of the bile and vitriol that spewed out on social media in response to the Gillette ad. This and the reactions to the Bezos divorce and Stuart Smith leaving for Vegolutionary Foods suggested we still have a lot further to go in terms of resetting gender relations and the way we interact with and perceive each other.

What’s wrong in believing in the best in men? And women too for that matter.

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