Gillette, the 118-year-old shaving company, has some mud on its face. (Or maybe that’s shaving cream.) The company just released a controversial commercial as part of a new campaign urging customers to aspire to more than just “the best (shave) a man can get.” Now, they’re supposed to become “The Best a Man Can Be.” What that means, of course, is that men should embrace the spirit of #MeToo, and learn how to support women and girls.
On a level of corporate strategy, this might just be an effort to compensate for the fact that Gillette still advertises on Fox News, even as many other companies have abandoned the right-wing network. They may have overshot though, because the new ad provoked so much anger that some have called for a boycott of Gillette products.
The commercial opens with an image of a man looking in a mirror, as a news reel in the background spouts buzz words: “bullying…violence…toxic masculinity.” A voice asks us, “Is this the best a man can get?” Next we are treated to a montage of stereotypical “bad men,” as they grope and patronize women, mindlessly couch-surf, and stand around smoking grills while their sons engage in vicious brawls. Then comes the dawn: the #MeToo movement stuns our handsy Neanderthals into silence, after which we are offered a tutorial on how men can be better. Mainly, this involves setting a good example for young boys by supporting girls and women and confronting those “toxic” men who haven’t yet absorbed the #MeToo message.
It’s hardly an exercise in subtlety. But really, can we expect the entitled louts of bro culture to absorb anything too nuanced?
Gillette is in a pickle here. They have needlessly offended customers, but apologizing for the ad would probably just make the situation worse. In the unsubtle world of corporate messaging, an apology would be read as a wholesale abandonment of the message. “Actually, we changed our minds. Sexual harassment isn’t that big of a deal. As you were!”
What Gillette can do is learn from this incident. It might even be possible to do some damage control if they think through their next step more carefully. I don’t really expect a shaving company to teach boys how to be men, but positive messaging for boys is so sorely needed right now that I’d cheerfully accept it from almost anyone with a platform.
Still, this ad misses the mark for a couple of important reasons. First of all, if you want to empower decent men, don’t start by implying that they were all basically incorrigible until women taught them how to do it right. I’m not implacably opposed to #MeToo; I think it’s had a mix of positive and negative effects. But the whole point of the ad is that boys and young men tend to model their behavior on other men. That’s absolutely right, so why not present some examples of men who have been setting a good example for more than just the past 18 months? You could feature a man reflecting on what his father or grandfather taught him about treating women with decency and respect. That monologue could be interspersed with some #MeToo references, but the presence of the honorable ancestor would dispel the impression that Gillette assumes its customers were mostly shameless lechers until Ashley Judd took them to task in October 2017.
Gillette execs might also consider a further question: what does it take for a man to be “the best he can be”? Obviously he should get an excellent shave, refrain from catcalling or groping people, and…anything else? To me, that sounds like a pretty low bar. When I think about the future I want for my five sons, “not becoming Harvey Weinstein” isn’t the only item on the list. Manhood involves more than just behaving properly around women, as important as that is. Perhaps people would respond more favorably to Gillette’s ads if they didn’t imply that controlling men’s basest impulses is about the best we can expect from them.
Masculinity is a thorny topic nowadays. But if Gillette is planning to brave these turbulent waters, they need a more substantial message. Instead of insulting men with a litany of brutish stereotypes, show us examples of men who contribute something good to society. Show us hardworking men who come through for their families even in difficult times. Remind us of the many honorable men who have thrown themselves into mortal danger to protect innocent lives. (Men do this far more frequently than women, by the way. Women can show heroic courage in other ways, but when a bystander jumps in to stop a homicidal maniac from massacring dozens, that person is usually a man.) Remind us of men who are honest, resourceful, and indomitable in the face of corruption. We’ve just marked the 10-year anniversary of Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s successful landing of U.S. Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after a catastrophic engine failure. I’d call that an inspiring example of a man being “the best he can be.”
Young men need discipline, today as ever, and sometimes that does call for policing of a #MeToo variety. Especially in our time, though, young men also need to be assured that they have the potential to be more than just barely controlled reprobates. It shouldn’t be too hard to send that message, because manly excellence is appealing to almost every audience. (That’s why movies and television dramas are generally well-stocked with brilliant, brave, and brawny men.) Even if it’s just corporate virtue-signaling, I’m prepared to applaud anyone who successfully persuades American boys that “you too can be excellent!” It’ll have to be better than this though. After a century of manufacturing men’s products, Gillette should know a little bit more than what it’s shown so far.
Rachel Lu is a senior contributor at The Federalist and a Robert Novak Fellow.