By now, we understand that Gillette’s controversial ad “We Believe” is a talker.
The online-only ad told men in no uncertain terms to step up their manners game in this ongoing #MeToo era. That means no mansplaining, no groping, and no bullying. The spot racked up 24 million YouTube hits, one million YouTube dislikes, and a boatload of pro toxic-masculinity ire. (What’s wrong with boys being boys? Girls, you need to get over that unwanted attention.)
There were also some valid complaints. I mean, not all men enjoy grilling, right? But the most interesting gibes revolved around Gillette’s having the gall to be a “woke” ad. How can an ad be authentic if it’s about making money? A friend of mine doubled down: “Ethics has no real standing or even a place in marketing,” he wrote to me.
Here is where I will respectfully disagree.
It goes without saying that the goal of advertising is to make money. Lots of it. And if there is any altruism involved, it’s a secondary byproduct, at best. But that doesn’t mean that advertisements don’t affect our culture — in good and bad ways.
Since the 1940s, advertising appealed to its target audience by creating images that by and large maintained the status quo. In 1948, De Beers launched the grandfather of all lifestyle campaigns with the help of the Philadelphia ad agency N.W. Ayer: “A Diamond Is Forever.” They took diamonds, trinkets reserved for the rich, and turned them into the centerpiece of the engagement ring, which today is widely considered the first major step on a young family’s road to the American dream: a marriage, a house, and 2.5 children. (Just forget how those diamonds are mined.)
The campaign helped set the tone for a 20th century replete with advertising that erred on the side of aspiration, as opposed to revolution. Advertising firms were status quo upholders, thus cementing the culture. Whether they were selling dishwashing detergent or cars, ads spoke to who we thought we wanted to be. They exploited cultural norms and maximized profits.
This would explain Gillette’s earlier ads that upheld the world’s notion of what a man should be (“The best a man can get”). I’m talking about those ads with scantily clad women that haters on social media were all too eager to point out.
And so advertising went, until around the middle of the last decade, when we slowly began to see more and more progressive images.
The advent of blogs and social media caused two things to happen: First, people who were not traditionally represented in mainstream ads started creating content that featured themselves and people who looked like them. Second, and more important, consumers began to question the integrity and veracity of the brands they were loyal to.
Fashion brands ― first niche designers and then, later, bigger, mainstream labels ― were among the early adapters. There were many and include Stella McCartney, who in 2001 launched an eco-friendly clothing line that continues to drive her successful women’s and accessories collection. In 2006, Blake Mycoskie launched TOMS to fight poverty. The company gives a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair purchased. Locally, brands like United By Blue opened brick-and-mortar stores with a clear mission to keep our waterways safe and clean by promising to remove a pound of garbage from the world’s oceans and rivers for every product bought.
“The nature of fashion is that it is not static,” said Elissa Bloom, executive director of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy’s. “Fashion is a vehicle for creative expression. It is one of the quickest reflections of what is happening in culture.”
Mainstream brands followed. Because of their wide audience, their way of being revolutionary was less about their core ethical mission, like being eco-friendly, and more about changing the visual narrative. And if their efforts happened to land the cover of Ad Age ― or columns like this one ― then so be it.
Take Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, which featured women of all body sizes, not just thin white women, using their beauty products. Fifteen years later, Dove — despite some glaring missteps — is still remembered as one of the brands that pioneered woke advertising.
Dove was preachy in an inclusive way. Yet other brands, like Cheerios, were more stealth in their attempt to make once-taboo images the norm. In 2013, Cheerios debuted a TV commercial with a mixed-race couple and their mixed-race child enjoying morning chit-chat with the box in the background. The racist backlash was swift.
The Cheerios ad “was really interesting because when they ran that, they ran it as just another ad,” said Steve Red, founder of the Philadelphia-based ad agency Red Tettemer. “It wasn’t made to get people talking, rather it was a reflection of what we were seeing in the world, and it was a super-confident stance.” And, Red added, it was worth it to the brand even if it alienated customers.
Fast-forward to today. Gillette finds itself as one brand in an emerging sea of advertising that has an altruistic undercurrent and/or is a visual reflection of our changing world. “More and more companies are going to be taking these kinds of stands,” Red said. “They are going to have purpose behind what they are doing because there are countless studies that show that’s what younger consumers — millennials and Gen Y’ers — want. People won’t choose them if they don’t."
Some of these new-normal scenes in modern advertising are fanfare-free, like the one that shows a black man (not a woman) tidying up his apartment using a Swiffer. My fave right now is AT&T’s “Just OK Is Not OK,” with two dads who aren’t impressed at all when the mediocre babysitter shows up at the door. Mediocre internet service is just as bad, reasons AT&T. #Loveit.
Others ― like the Gillette spot ― are the most woke and are the proud recipients of backlash. They challenge long- held beliefs they say aren’t working anymore. And they are taking it a step further by pointing out what needs to be done. For the record, Gillette is planning to donate $1 million for the next three years to organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
They include Nike’s pro Colin Kaepernick plug and Patagonia’s “The President Stole Your Land” campaign, a direct response to President Donald Trump’s order to reduce the size of two of Utah’s national monuments. Just this month, TOMS began urging visitors to its website to write to their representatives to pass universal background checks for guns.
But even more so than brands that sell sportswear, sneakers, or in the case of TOMS, canvas shoes, every man shaves. And that is why Gillette took so much heat. A brand that gives so many men a pro-woman message can’t be ignored, even if when you look in the mirror, you feel threatened by the message.