Photo courtesy of Procter & Gamble

Exploring Politically Conscious Commercials Through Gillette's Toxic Masculinity Ad

What is toxic masculinity and how does it affect the public discourse? Milkshakes and Masculinity, a gathering hosted by the Women’s Center’s on Monday, offered an opportunity for students across grade levels and gender identities to reflect on the issue of toxic masculinity on BC campus and in society at large.

The event was timely following the release of a Gillette ad on January 13th. The commercial asks, “Is this the best a man can get?” It boldly challenges its viewers to acknowledge and confront a parade of disagreeable behaviors committed by men and boys: assault, discrimination, sexual harassment, online bullying, and more. 

The ad, at just under two minutes long, was released by Gillette via social media on Jan. 13. The premise sounds like a timely response to the issues brought into the spotlight by the #MeToo movement, one of the most significant social movements that arguably defined the cultural debate of 2018. However, the commercial almost immediately stirred up a whirlwind of controversy.

A major criticism the ad faced was the question about its true intention. Was profit the driving force behind its conception? The moral implications might be indicting. A variety of companies have taken stands on social issues, to varying outcomes. One of the most successful campaigns was conceived by another industry giant, Nike. In late 2018, Nike released an ad campaign voicing support for Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL player embroiled in controversy after his decision to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police brutality. The ad was generally well received, and reportedly awarded Nike with significant sales increases.

Perhaps inspired by Nike’s success, Procter & Gamble, the company that owns Gillette, appears to have devised the campaign by taking carefully calculated risks. Marketing consultant Peter Horst proposed a system he called the Brand Risk-Relevance Curve that applies to Gillette’s decision making process. Horst developed a diagram that represents a series of actions that could potentially result in increase of “likelihood of resonance” from customers who agree with the brand’s opinion and “risk of blowback” from those who don’t. According to Horst, what potentially derailed Gillette’s campaign was their decision to adopt a Position—a clear, oftentimes provocative demonstration of a company’s stance on certain issues. Simply highlighting controversial issues without taking sides or illustrating the company’s overall values and purpose are both considerably low-risk, as they are inward-focused statements. Adopting a definitive position, on the other hand, risks antagonizing and alienating customers with different beliefs.  

The exact outcome of P&G’s bold marketing plan will not be revealed until late April, when their quarter report will be released. However, the impacts of the debates it initiated were almost immediately felt. The ad was met with ardent support and outrage just as fervid, which evolved into a heated, albeit somewhat sensationalist, debate over masculinity and its place in the 21st century American society.

In one of the most memorable scenes from the ad, a line of studly-looking men stood behind their grills with their arms crossed in a gesture that has come to symbolize masculinity in the American consciousness, reciting the all-too-familiar declaration, “Boys will be boys will be boys.”

The negative portrayal did not sit well with many viewers. Some on social media saw it as an attack on “masculinity” and “half of humanity known as men." Television personality Piers Morgan took to Twitter to rail about the ad, calling it “pathetic” and “a direct consequence of radical feminists” who are “driving a war against masculinity.”

Much of the debate seems misguided, as a central dispute that sits at its heart was never adequately addressed. Many saw being aggressive as part of the inherited right of men, part of what distinguishes the male sex from their female counterparts. An inquiry into the relationship between masculinity and disorderly behavior seemed necessary. Is violent behavior a inherent part of masculinity, or is the association just another social construct? Statistics show that there does seem to be a correlation. The FBI documented that, in 2012, over 73 percent of persons arrested in the US were male; 88.7 percent of murders were committed by men; men committed over 99 percent of rape reported.

Does this mean that men do have an innate tendency to be aggressive? Does this therefore exempt adolescent boys from rowdy behaviors and excessive use of force? The tendency of male violence shown by the statistics may be a result of the social stigma of masculinity and not necessarily indicative of innate qualities. One must keep in mind that the concept of masculinity has long been tangled with social gender norms, familial power dynamics, political shifts, and many other factors that have prevented a definitive and objective assessment.

Similar to the lack of consensus around the true definition of masculinity, many also have ambivalent feelings toward politically conscious advertisements. Are socially relevant commercials like this a product of the emerging social movements, or is the changing social landscape a product of such proponents?

To answer this question, one must first bring attention to the fact that the younger generation seems to receive and process news in a completely unorthodox manner. A research that surveyed 26,500 people in 23 countries conducted by Kantar, a big data research consultancy, indicates that over 60% of Gen Z and Millennials have demonstrated approval of brands that maintain a viewpoint and stand on social issues. A third of Gen Z-ers also spend at least one hour per day watching videos online, according to a survey conducted by the Nola media group. The obvious shift in demographics and the way the younger generation obtains information mean that advertisements such as the Gillette ad will have more influence on public opinion than its predecessor ever achieved.

As the public loses its trust in the government and traditional news outlets, many companies have sought to fill in the vacancy and advocate for various social causes: Heineken’s super bowl ad highlighting the immigration quandary, Pantene’s “Strong Is Beautiful” campaign, Frito-Lay’s campaign for protection of LGBTQ teens, etc.

Against the backdrop of an increasingly polarized political climate in which facts are increasingly irrelevant, these ads have helped bring some of the most pressing issues under the national spotlight and fostered constructive debate. In other words, even if the corporations acted from a place of self interest, the campaigns have definitely had some positive impacts on the public discourse by initiating debates and conversations. And that is arguably what the society needs most in an era defined not by reason but by the rancor of the angry mob: an ongoing open dialogue about the most controversial yet important issues facing modern America. Toxic masculinity is just the tip of the iceberg.


Raymond Cai