#hashtagbacklash : Why The Gillette Ad Failed To Launch

Los Angeles
17 Jul. 2020

Can a hashtag change the world?
Yes. #MeToo did.

Can the same hashtag help in selling products?
Maybe, maybe not.

The latest object of the #MeToo backlash is what’s considered to be one of the manliest brands the world has known – Gillette. Its latest ad features beautiful visuals and an emotional soundtrack, yet a large swath of its target audiences were left with mixed feelings.

Some have found the ad offensive for its negative portrayals of men, others have applauded Gillette for discussing about ‘toxic masculinity.’ Some customers on social media have even claimed to abandon the product and posted photos competitor razor brands to show their anger against Gillette. Huffington Post wrote that the ad was actually quite conservative. Actor James Wood tweeted, “So nice to see @Gillette jumping on the “men are horrible” campaign permeating mainstream media and Hollywood entertainment. I for one will never use your product again.”

Author of ‘Stand By Your Manhood’ Peter Lloyd explored out other razor options: ‘Don’t wanna spend your hard-earned money on @Gillette? Here are some quality alternatives…’  before proceeding to name Gillette’s competitors. Conservative commentator Candace Owens called it a “product of mainstream radicalized feminism” while Pierce Morgan felt that Gillette was “eager to fuel the current pathetic global assault on masculinity.”

The Gillette ad and why it may have gone wrong?

The Gillette ad begins by introducing the impact of #MeToo from frame one. It showcases men of all age groups and ethnicity looking at themselves into the mirror as news headlines related to #MeToo play in the background …. ‘sexual harassment is taking over Hollywood … bullying .. a problem we cannot hide anymore … allegations regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment … ‘ 

The voice-over questions Gillette’s own coveted tagline with – Is this the best a man can get? The rest of the ad shows “conventional” behaviours of men and boys that have been accepted as the norm so far. It becomes clearer now that the ad addresses both sexual misconduct against women as well as bullying by men or boys in general. The ad goes on to show the importance of setting good examples on the part of grown men for the younger boys.

But Gillette didn’t just stop at the ad. The company created a website for the campaign – thebestmencanbe.org. You would think that this would build on the #MeToo discussion started in the TV spots. When you visit this website, however, it looks like any other e-commerce product website except that Gillette pledges this –

As part of The Best Men Can Be campaign, Gillette is committing to donate $1 million per year for the next three years to non-profit organizations executing programs in the United States designed to inspire, educate and help men of all ages achieve their personal “best” and become role models for the next generation.   

The brand has partnered with The Boys and Girls Clubs of America that has more than 4300 clubs across the country and that trains the youth in developing social and emotional skills in everyday life.

Let’s start with what the ad, and the campaign got right :

1] Nuances such as a dad lifting his daughter up to say – I am strong or another Dad making his way between bullying children to save another child or a man correcting another man leering at a woman saying – Not cool man, not cool.

2] Actor and activist Terry Crews making an appearance. As a victim of sexual harassment, he adds some gravitas to the spot.

3] Pointing at behaviours that are considered trash universally, not just in one country.

4] People of all colours, races being showcased.

5] The actual tie-up with The Boys and Girls Club of America in order to create a difference.

So why the backlash? 

1] Bullying is not perpetrated by men or boys alone. The portrayal of men as perpetrators of violence at the beginning of the spot rubbed some viewers the wrong way.

2] Gillette has a history of showing ads that glorified some of the questionable behaviors shown in the ad. This ad and it’s tone feels inauthentic given Gillette’s previous ad campaigns. Twitteratti pointed out several photos and old videos where Gillette had clearly used women models to convey a message of masculinity. There’s one photograph of a group of women wearing one piece blue full bodysuit with ‘Gillette’ written on their butts. Same is the case with the parent company Procter and Gamble. Several of P&G products sell the concept of ‘fairness’ to women, that’s already quite racist. Back in 2013, when P&G came up with the My Black is Beautiful campaign, the double standards of the company were exposed because a range of its products, including leading brands such as Olay, were all about ‘skin lightening’ and were being sold in parts of South Africa. This is precisely what has made the Gillette ad look so inauthentic because men and women feel offended that a brand with that kind of advertising history is teaching them moral lessons of behaviour.

3] The landing page of the campaign – thebestmencanbe.org – redirects to the e-com site gillette.com. See what they did there ? Smart. Very smart. But feels inauthentic. Co-opting a movement that is out to battle sexual violence to sell more razors comes across as a insincere and plastic.

The bigger question is – should brands engage in social conversations? 

There is enough research that suggests that customers prefer brands that stand for a cause and most of these causes today are communicated and made viral through social media. Sprout Social found in a study that 66% of consumers want companies to take a stand on political and social issues, and more than half stated that they were open to that happening on social media.

However, customers also wants brands to be honest, and authentic. Unless brands are truly making a change and not just pretending to be make the change, best to stay away from the discussions altogether. It’s become clearer now that #MeToo is not something that can be trivialized for personal gain. Customers will not hesitate in calling out brands that simply wish to cash in on the movement. Companies will need to think beyond video production, beyond TV Commercials. They will need to truly empathize with their customers whose feelings are not the same as before, learn how they can help, and be an organic part of that conversation.

What could Gillette have done?

1] Instead of imposing that something’s wrong with the society, it could have come up with a more honest campaign and owned up its own past errors. Without this, the intentions behind the ad would always be questioned.

2] It could have shown a world where men and women are treated equal and not defined in terms of either masculinity or feminism but as equal partners.

3] Kept the campaign away from Super Bowl.

Co-opting a movement that is out to battle sexual violence to sell more razors comes across as a insincere and plastic.

How can brands address #MeToo then?

We have a checklist –

Phase I:  During campaign planning, and before video/ad production

# Define what your business stands forWhat difference do you wish to make in the lives of your customers? What do your customers feel passionately about? What do they care for the most? Some of these questions would help you define the purpose of your brands. Already done that? Great. But do it again because post-#MeToo, things are not the same. Once you determine this, it’s important to align your goals with the movement. You need to take an honest call about whether or not your brand will help steer the movement or hurt it.

# Pick the right emotion

Remember design thinking? It’s probably the best and the most relevant time to apply it. Get consumer empathy, re-do consumer profiling and find out how you can involve consumers in creating new products, services or simply a cause. Create a whole cause not just a campaign. Reward your customers with personalized tokens and get their feedback. This would truly help you steer not only your marketing activity but your brand positioning too.

# Be authentic

Consumers should be able to see your actions before you start preaching to the world. This applies not only in case of #MeToo movement but also for any social cause in general. This kind of authenticity makes your consumers stick and truly believe in your brand. There’s no better credibility than the credibility itself.

#Create actionable touch points

If you don’t have an independent cell that’s working to further the cause, partner with relevant organizations already working towards the change. Make sure these organizations have a good track record and can truly make a difference.

Phase II: During campaign production

#Set the context right

If the purpose of your brand is clear, it becomes easier to identify the context. That includes the choice of the environment or setting, the kind of actors or models you pick and the way screenplay would turn out. Research well about the touchy points of your demographic and try to be neutral instead of divisive or partial.

# Get your agency on the same page

A lot of time well-meaning brands end up making advertising blunders simply because they didn’t have a clear communication with their agencies. Choose NYC production companies that share similar values with you when it comes to #MeToo movement. If the agency has a history of producing sexist ads, it’s best to avoid it for this specific campaign.

# Lead them to an actionable cause

Your call to action in a #MeToo themed ad campaign should ideally be some kind of help or support.

# Be human and assume responsibility

It’s possible that you may have aired ads earlier that were offensive or sexist. Make sure you acknowledge mistake at some point in the messaging. If you don’t’, your consumers will make you. It’s best to assume responsibility and be human about it.

#Take the ‘change’ approach instead of ‘blame approach

You may choose to highlight the positive change or the need for it more than the negative sides. If your ad glorifies perpetrators in some way, you have already got the messaging wrong. Try to keep it gender-neutral because #MeToo is against sexual harassment in general, it’s not a movement against men.

Phase III- After ad production

# Choose your platforms correctly

Don’t make the mistake Gillette did in choosing Pre-Super Bowl to talk about #MeToo. Make sure that your brand chooses platforms, seasons and slots that are relevant to both the movement as well as the ad campaign.

# Maintain consistency

The consistency of your messaging should be obvious across all channels. You can create one solid ad or a series but it should have a consistency of imagery and voice.

#Participate in the discussion

There’s still a good chance that your ad may garner both positive and negative reactions. Be respectful about addressing negative reaction. Respect other’s opinion. At the same time, there’s no need to address every remark or feedback.

As most movements and causes have proved, change doesn’t happen overnight and by working in isolation. Brands and advertising agencies need to unite and take a common stand about sexual harassment. It’s also imperative to not get tempted to jump the bandwagon just because everyone else is or because it’s where your customers are.

Los Angeles
17 Jul. 2020
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