It may just be one of the worst marketing blunders in the history of corporate advertising. In a bid to capitalize on the popularity of the #MeToo movement, Gillette, the world-famous razor company, last year ran a lengthy TV ad calling on men to defend women against sexual harassment.
In theory, that might not sound like a bad idea. Companies these days often seek to improve their standing with consumers by demonstrating a measure of social responsibility. And some women do get harassed, of course.
But this campaign was truly misguided. For one thing, it was designed by a small band of ardent feminists whose past video credits include an ode to the vagina and a mock documentary about a man who loses his libido after becoming addicted to steroids. These hardly seem like the kind of people likely to spur a balanced dialogue about the future of male-female gender relations.
The Gillette ad reflects this distorted view. There is one scene after another of men engaged in primitive boorish behavior as well as a particularly disturbing image of a string of suburban brutes standing next to outdoor barbecues apparently seething with rage-fueled desire.
The tone of the ad was high-minded and condescending and for most viewers, including many women, off-putting.
Intended or not, the impression the ad left was that most men are would-be harassers and needed to be restrained, maybe even caged.
Most men don’t support this view. And men are Gillette’s primary consumer base. Gillette has been extolling the virtues of men – indeed, masculine men — for decades. It’s how the company built its corporate empire.
Debate raged for weeks on Twitter about the Gillette ad. Many women and some men defended it and suggested that men who didn’t like it had a problem – the very one the ad depicted. Maybe they needed sensitivity training?
But it didn’t wash. Most respondents found the Gillette ad demeaning – and threatened to quietly boycott the company.
And apparently, that’s just what they did. This week Proctor & Gamble (P&G), Gillette’s parent company, announced a whopping $8 billion “write down” of Gillette’s assets, a clear indication of the damage to its brand. Gillette blamed the write down on competitors offering cheaper razors that cut into the company’s sales. The company said it was “confident” that sales would rebound.
Industry observers scoff at that claim.
One noted: “Perhaps P&G isn’t willing to come forward yet with the fact that they made a monumental error in assuming men would take the ‘toxic masculinity’ commercial well, but they should soon. The brand is damaged enough to lose billions, and men aren’t coming back, especially with cheaper alternatives embracing men for who they are and not assuming the worst about them.”
Gillette appears to have violated some basic business rules about promoting social responsibility. Not lecturing your own consumers is one of them. In recent years, the Starbucks chain insisted on trying to educate its own coffee consumer about racism, even asking its baristas to engage customers in “constructive dialogue” as they were hurriedly picking up their drinks. The campaign was pilloried on social media and abandoned in a matter of weeks.
Why would Gillette choose to go down this same dangerous road?
One explanation is that many popular companies like Starbucks have liberal male CEOs that somehow feel they have a responsibility or a right to speak out on social issues. Moreover, much of their top leadership ranks are being filled with women who have the same activist ambitions.
The “brains” behind the Gillette ad was Caroline Testad, a top P&G executive who’s overseen a number of the parent’s company’s new brand campaigns aimed at redefining what it means to be “masculine.” In an interview last year she noted that 9 out of 10 consumers support companies that embrace their own political and personal causes.
Perhaps, but did Gillette do any focus group research to test their messaging with real-live Gillette consumers? Also, who chose the ad designers? A more balanced presentation of the obstacles to mutual gender respect might be welcome, but placing the onus on men alone is a non-starter.
Some companies seem to think that it’s enough to stir up controversy, creating social media buzz to bolster sales of their flagship product. And too many corporate women – many of them ardent feminists – seem to live in their own ideological echo chamber, oblivious to the needs and views of men.
Most already respect women. When we get up in the morning, it’s still “shit, shower and shave” – only now, it’s no longer with Gillette.