It seemed like only days ago the only thing anyone could talk about online was Gillette’s We Believe advertisement, purporting to call out “toxic masculinity”. In an age of 24-hour news cycles and vanishingly short attention spans, the Internet, acting as a proxy for the world of actual people, has moved on to the next manufactured controversy – something about a smirking Catholic Boy from Kentucky.
I often find it is useful, as in the Covington event, ironically, to take a moment to consider one’s thoughts on a matter before vomiting them, with ill-acquired confidence, all over Twitter. Folk wisdom is so-called for a reason, and my mother always told me to never make a decision in the heat of the moment. Let us not forget that it used to be considered a virtue to think before speaking. Now virtue is ostensibly to be derived from jury-rigging one’s limbic system to do the job of one’s frontal lobe. The results can be, understandably, inconsistent. The Gillette advertisement is, like many phenomena, complicated, and deserves detailed consideration, which I humbly submit to the reader.
The self-proclaimed “short film” (read: advertisement), as Gillette is at pains to point out, is being released because of the 30 year anniversary of their tagline, The Best a Man Can Get. Yes, we really are being asked to celebrate the birthday of corporate advertising jargon (and being asked to ignore the fact that this ad is, rather, being made to capitalise on the social context of today).
The video was released to strongly mixed reviews. In a climate dominated by the absence of nuance, reactions could reliably be sorted by political delineations: left-leaning progressives thought the ad was a wonderful exercise in exhorting men to be better, despite the fact that the ad is deliberately vague as to what better entails; right-leaning conservatives saw the ad as an unpardonable assault on men as a class of people, although my sense is that the backlash was less unhinged ranting, more reasoned criticism. It strikes me as odd that progressives, normally falling over themselves to decry the actions of multinational corporations and their corrupting profit motive, were quick to praise Gillette, and by extension their parent company, Proctor & Gamble (P&G), for their brave and meaningful stand against “toxic masculinity”. P&G is doing an excellent impersonation of the Sophists of old: the company is not interested in the search for truth, only the search for its next marketing windfall.
It was obvious to me that, regardless of the ideological message of the ad, it was just that – a vehicle for brand awareness. P&G is interested in one thing: making money. They do this through Gillette by selling razors. But what can be done when your target market is perceived as problematic in some significant part? In an age where virtue signalling has taken the place of principled action, the solution is obvious: hire a talented advertising guru with a penchant for social messages, commission an advertisement that obsequiously panders to people who think men are inherently problematic, and re-imagine your brand as part of the solution, not the problem. Nothing about Gillette’s products has changed. They are still manufactured for the lowest possible price in Brazil, Mexico, Poland, and China. The same principles of free-market economics apply, only now they have been granted the patina of moral superiority. The irony is it was the audience that bestowed this status on Gillette. The advertisement continues a disturbing trend of paint-by-numbers activism that rewards right-think, even when it is being used by billion-dollar companies to sell products. It seems absurd that a razor could take on this level of significance, but here we are.
Of course, there would have been no reason to pander to the sensibilities of the intersectional Left that have pervaded wider society unless there was a mood with which to align. “Toxic masculinity” is an oft used and seldom defined term that means different things to different people. That is part of its promotional genius: everyone thinks Gillette means what they mean when they use it. There are, I freely admit, aspects of being a man that are less than laudable. Just as there are aspects of being a woman that are the same. However, a short sojourn through Gillette’s The Best a Man Can Be site (included in the tweet of the ad) reveals nothing more than a pastiche of delusion and self-aggrandising rhetoric. “Thirty years ago, we launched our ‘The Best A Man Can Get’ slogan. Since then, it has been an aspirational statement, reflecting standards that many men strive to achieve.”
One expects a brand to trumpet the virtue of its products, and by doing so, inform the consumer of reasons for purchase. What is far more irksome is for a brand to position itself as a moral exemplar. Men have only been striving to be their best for 30 years since Gillette’s marketing team coined the slogan? And isn’t the corollary of being the best, fierce competition, one of the hallmarks of the “toxic masculinity” their ad purports to decry?
There is something strangely fitting for an American corporation to set itself up as a cultural and moral authority, but this does not make it any less odious. And yet, Gillette claims that exact position: “It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture.” To the extent that statement is true, we should be extremely concerned. We should be equally reticent to accept a brand telling us that they are a wide-ranging cultural influence. Market share does not equate to being a thought leader, particularly when these are the thoughts that result.
One might argue that the Gillette ad made a big splash, so doesn’t the “cultural influence” tag ring true? That question really boils down to “does 5 seconds of attention on social media make you a cultural influence?”. I say that it does not. And why would we want it to be otherwise? Are we so devoid of meaning in our lives that we are voluntarily taking advice from a razor company? A corporation does not a moral authority make. Moral leaders usually have more fundamental insights than such statements as “it’s clear that changes are needed”. What changes? Why are they needed? Let’s take a look at some of the specific scenes in the advertisement to see what Gillette thinks.
One scene that stands out for it’s surpassing idiocy is two boys wrestling at a barbecue while an entourage of grown men watches on chanting “boys will be boys”. Leaving aside the fact that I am yet to hear any man offer that as an excuse for objectionable behaviour. What is the charge here? Wrestling? I have 2 younger brothers, and we loved to wrestle on our trampoline in my youth. They are some of my fondest memories. But Gillette, in all it’s woke wisdom, sees fit to decry such behaviour and make the onlooking men complicit in this most dastardly of deeds. Not to worry though, a sufficiently enlightened gent comes along and breaks up the altercation with the words “that’s not how we treat each other”. What an exhilarating childhood his sons must lead.
Directly after the shot of the boys wrestling, the ad cuts to a news anchor talking about allegations of sexual harassment. Are we really supposed to believe that boys wrestling–again, a mostly benign manifestation of youthful exuberance–leads to sexual assault? Is pathologising a natural instinct that most boys have–voluntarily engaging in rough and tumble playmaking men the best they can be, as Gillette claims?
The ad also calls out bullying, with a scene showing a small boy clutched to his mother’s shoulder, sobbing. I went to an all-boys school, and I know the effect that bullying can have and the relentless form it can take. But to characterise bullying as a male-specific problem is disingenuous in the extreme. My partner readily admits that, looking back on her actions as a schoolchild, she could rightly be described as a bully, and a bad one. But we are asked to swallow the idea that “men need to do better”. Not only is the specific example a paper-thin pandation of the truth, it collectivises responsibility in an illegitimate and, ironically, toxic way.
The final touch which exemplifies this irresponsible collectivisation of guilt is Gillette’s opportunistic slogan, devised in conjunction with the advertisement. The razor giant has decided to alter it’s slogan slightly for the purposes of the video and associated campaign. The twist? The Best Men Can Be.
There surely are trends that are tightly correlated with gender. Men are generally more aggressive than women, for instance. But does it serve anyone to imply that men, as a gender, are responsible for the bad behaviour of other people, with whom they share nothing other than genitalia? I am responsible for my actions and choices, as is every other sane human being. To be lectured to about the behaviour of other men who are not me, or anyone I know, is extremely tiresome and worse, intellectually dishonest. I am no more responsible for the bad behaviour of a random man than I am for the bad behaviour of a random woman.
As a basically functional human, I am already attuned to defending people I care about from the malicious, negligent, selfish, and inconsiderate behaviours of others. I bristle (can you tell?) at the presumptiveness of a corporation telling me how to conduct myself in my own life. Who the hell are you to talk to me in that tone of voice? I am not a child. I know what immoral behaviour looks like and I know how to respond to it. The backlash that Gillette is facing for the video, while sometimes over the top, is of their own making. It is no surprise that the negative reaction to the advertisement is coming from men, considering they are its target. They are saying, ‘don’t presume to tell me how to live my life.’ I cannot see the unreasonableness of this stance.
The arc of political and moral discussion seems to be bending, worryingly, towards group considerations. White men, people of colour, oppressed women. This is not progress. Progress comes from recognising that each individual is, for the most part, responsible for their own success and failure. Your bad decisions cannot be laid at the feet of your chromosomes. A man who sexually assaults a woman has no-one to blame but himself. The corollary of that self-evident truth is that I bear no responsibility for his manifestly defective character. The sooner Gillette and others realise this, the sooner we can start having productive conversations again.