The Gillette TV ad that references bullying, the #MeToo movement and toxic masculinity has been the source of some outcry, with criticism ranging from it disrespecting “masculine men” to being “feminist propaganda”. But for me, its crime is falling into the ‘progressive man’ trap.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad. For a start, Gillette seems to have understood that the concept of masculinity is in crisis. Which it is.
Furthermore, it has acknowledged the importance from a commercial and social perspective of changing the narrative about what it means to be a man. And about time, too, given that it has been responsible for reinforcing so many outdated and unhelpful male gender stereotypes.
As a leading brand which has spent many years building an image of success for men that has got us where we are now, it’s only right – and, probably, commercially imperative - that it acknowledges this (even tacitly, as in this case).
It is laudable, too, that Gillette appears willing to now take responsibility by being a champion for a different definition of masculinity.
But there’s a but.
Men maybe in crisis, but they are not the enemy. Yes, some men have done wrong things that hurt women as well as other men, but it is also true that most men are good men, with good intentions and values.
Yet this piece of film uses lazy stereotyping that is little better than the rugged models stroking their chiselled chins after a shave that people Gillette’s past advertising campaigns for so many years by.
The underlying issue is that most men have been told since they were boys to behave in a particular way, despite who they really are. They have been expected to repress certain emotions and exaggerate others - to perform appropriately to be considered as ‘real men’.
The real enemy here, then, is the word ‘perform’. For if we perform who we are instead of being who we are most of the time, we will live in pain. And so we are.
Anxiety, addictions, a disproportionate proportion of male suicide, increasing levels of violence to themselves or to others, and other symptoms, are showing this clearly. The situation is so bad that the American Psychological Association recently issued guidelines to psychologists on how to improve male health.
Men are in crisis, and not necessarily through their own making. Change is needed. And brand communications can - and must - be part of the solution. But this new ad from Gillette doesn’t do that.
Recently, many brands have sought to counter traditional ways of being a man simply by presenting men with a new, more progressive – and equally stereotypical and unrealistic - way of being. Telling men that all they need is to be vulnerable and emotional is simply trying to force one trait to replace another.
That’s what’s going on in this ad, and it’s clumsy and patronising.
The end result is a ‘conservative vs neo-liberal’ style fight that doesn’t serve men … and, arguably, doesn’t exist in real life, either.
Our recent research at New Macho paints a new and nuanced picture of male identity. Traditional men and progressive men are not who you think they are, we found after talking to 2,000 men and women in the UK. In fact, neither seems likely to be a particularly useful category any more as men can be very progressive and very traditional simultaneously.
At issue, then, is Gillette’s focus on telling men how they need to behave and failure to help them to feel comfortable being who they really are. There is no demonstration of any understanding that not all men are the same.
A smarter campaign would build a new aspiration for men - one where men are not defined by performing what they think is expected, but by being true to their honest values and beliefs. One where there is understanding that different men are, well, different.
Time to wake up, then, Gillette. Because there’s only one thing that will make men the best a man can be: himself.
Fernando Desouches is managing director of New Macho at creative agency BBD Perfect Storm, specialising in advertising to men