Last week, Gillette engaged in one of the more constructive advertising trends of the recent cultural moment–that is, creating a homiletic, morally instructive advertisement with a doctrine ostensibly beyond the company’s profit motive. The ad in particular, entitled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” inverts the company’s “best a man can get” maxim, calling on men to reject the traditionally “masculine” traits of aggression, self-adulation, and objectification of women–attitudes which comprise a social scientific concept known as “toxic masculinity.” The response was fairly predictable: far-reaching condemnation of the personal care company followed mere hours after the publication of the ad, with public figures like James Woods and Piers Morgan suggesting boycotts of Gillette products. Morgan referred to the ad as “repulsive” and a “pathetic … assault on masculinity.” The ad prompted dozens of op-eds in online newspapers like Forbes and Bloomberg expressing sentiments from tangible antipathy to implicit support.
Yet, this backlash seems unjustified and a little bizarre, likely because of confusion about how the terms involved are defined. It is a routine misconception to consider “toxic masculinity” to be synonymous with “masculinity,” with the adjective “toxic” taken pejoratively to define all masculine traits. “Toxicity,” in this case, is simply an expression of how stereotypical masculine traits interplay with societal conceptions of aggressive, dominating men that encourage violence, primacy, and competition as core values of truly “masculine” men. This is a truth that Gillette intuitively understands and deploys in the advertisement’s imagery of men who batter one another and denigrate women, played to the refrain “boys will be boys.” The commercial concludes with optimistic visions of men breaking up children’s scuffles and generally holding other men accountable at an individual level, exhibiting what Gillette sees as positive masculine traits and breaking the cycle of “toxic masculinity.” Far from being an attack on men, this advertisement is merely an attempt at the mildest of moral edification for a genuinely bothersome behavioral trend and offers a confident glimpse of a more egalitarian future where society measures manliness more in compassion and accountability than in stoicism and aggression.
Of course, it must be noted that Gillette does not tender such moralizing sentiments in its advertising solely as a means of bettering society; it, like any corporation, wishes to maximize its earnings, and therefore, all of its operations must be understood with this in mind. Another corporation which was met with similar controversy last year, Nike, saw enormous returns from its Colin Kaepernick-centered apparel campaign. Shares of the company increased by nearly $6 billion despite promises of boycotts and widespread destruction of the company’s footwear, invalidating a long-held belief that corporations cannot simultaneously take moral stances and increase profits. Notwithstanding the press that controversial advertisements invariably generate, companies like Nike and Gillette appear simply to be catching the prevailing winds of progressive thinking in the younger market and engaging in mild sentimental gambles on the presupposition that brand loyalty instilled in the hearts of values-focused customers will hold out longer than any purported boycott by outraged clientele. So far, they seem to be correct. It is thus increasingly likely that these didactic commercials will become standard, and cyclic media fits such as the one surrounding Gillette can be anticipated on a weekly, rather than monthly, basis. With such expectations, one must imagine the corporation happy.