Henry C. Boyd from the University of Maryland and Michael Kehler from the University of Calgary discuss Gillette's ad campaign on toxic masculinity.

Gillette has become the latest brand to take on challenging social issues with a commercial that has drawn swift criticism for what some view to be heavy-handed messaging about bad male behavior. But in the weeks since the debut of its “toxic masculinity” ad, the company’s sales have been holding steady while the controversy around it has dimmed from a red-hot conflagration to a constructive conversation about the messaging.

The ad, which tackles bullying, sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement and even “mansplaining,” asks the question, “Is this the best a man can get?” It’s a play on the enduring Gillette slogan that generations of TV watchers grew up with. The ad has garnered more 25 million views on YouTube since it was posted on January 13, and parent company Procter & Gamble said Wednesday that sales of the iconic razors are at pre-ad levels, while its subscription business is growing. That’s the best a brand can hope for when launching a risky marketing campaign, experts said.

“You do not tinker with your brand. It’s something that you have to be very strategic about,” said Henry C. Boyd, marketing professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. “When you’ve looked at the tea leaves and say this is the direction we need to go in, then you move accordingly. This idea that we’re just going to jump on the new flavor of the month, we’re going to try this – no, you wouldn’t do that. Especially a storied brand like Gillette, they would do their homework first.”

Michael Kehler, professor of masculinity studies at the University of Calgary, agreed. He described the campaign as a provocative mixture of social activism and commercialism.

“I thought this was one more example of the way in which companies and agencies are really reflecting a very different user-consumer, a much more informed consumer,” he said. “I think they are acknowledging these are current times and these are current issues about which their consumers are interested in and have opinions about.”

“This is not only an advertisement about men and boys, it’s an advertisement about power, about gender arrangements, and about the ways we can actually change these arrangements.” –Michael Kehler

Boyd and Kehler analyzed Gillette’s marketing campaign for the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams, whose research focuses on how emotions influence consumer decision-making, said in an email interview that Gillette has joined a growing cadre of brands that are using social issues to connect to consumers on a gut level.

“Goods and services are consumed as part of culture, and I think it’s just natural that marketers try to place their goods and services into cultural trends,” she noted. “I think it’s also clearly the case that consumers increasingly want to buy products and services from brands that stand for something meaningful. People want brands and companies to have values and to speak about those values. And they want to align with brands and companies that share their values.”

Preachy and Inauthentic?

While the professors offered praise for the ad, there has been a social media backlash. Detractors have denounced Gillette’s approach as preachy and inauthentic, a desperate attempt to gain sales in the face of increased pressure from low-cost competitors Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club. In an opinion piece, industry publication Ad Age warned against “woke” advertising because it can go wrong.

“Consumers are smart, and you underestimate your audience at your own peril,” the article stated. “They assumed their target would be receptive to the message, but it was delivered in a bizarre fashion, towing the line between humor and earnestness. While the message clicked for some (including many women), it made others feel uncomfortable or downright angry. And who can blame them? No one likes being told they’re bad and then asked to buy something.”

Kehler and Boyd questioned the motives of people who don’t like the ad, saying perhaps they should look inside themselves for the reasons why. Critics are most likely older, conservative men who want to uphold sharp gender lines and don’t want any disruption to the social status-quo.

“If you have a really stellar, strong brand, you’re going to have to take a position and be clear about it.” –Henry C. Boyd

But the disruption is already underway, they pointed out. “Some men feel threatened by this and by the narrative that it portrays,” Kehler said. “If you watch the ad towards the end, you see men as change agents. We don’t see a barrage of images of men who are caring, nurturing, parenting, because that hasn’t been the narrative. We see a lot of stereotypes of masculinity, and that points to, as we move along in the advertisement, the ability to change.”

The ad dovetails with current events and is an entry point for deeper discussion about shifting gender roles and gender identify, he added. “We saw it with the politics in the U.S., and we see it with these advertisements as chance to have a conversation, to not only think back but also to think forward about the direction in which we’re going, toward greater equality. This is not only an advertisement about men and boys, it’s an advertisement about power, about gender arrangements, and about the ways we can actually change these arrangements and be a part of that change.”

For Boyd, the ad evokes what he calls “productive masculinity,” which is a topic worthy of broader discussion.

“It’s the idea that you have this power and, if you do channel it in the right way, you can do these things that effect good change in society,” he said. “As we go forward and we think of the next generation of boys as we are raising them, saying that here are the things you can channel that energy into, and it can be better for all – that is a good thing.”

Taking a Risk

Williams said Gillette was smart to seize on a topic that is within the brand’s purview, much in the same way that Nike backed former NFL player Colin Kapernick’s decision to take a knee during the national anthem. Nike’s move to feature Kapernick in a commercial sparked an immediate backlash, but the company saw a subsequent spike in sales.

“It has to be done in a way that feels like it’s a place where the brand has the credibility and legitimacy to speak.” –Patti Williams

Williams said Gillette’s decision to turn its old slogan – “The best a man can get” — on its ear was very clever.

“Cultural hot-button issues can be relevant. There are risks there, though,” she said. “It has to be an authentic engagement with the conversation. It has to be done in a way that feels like it’s a place where the brand has the credibility and legitimacy to speak. That’s why their use of the tagline was so effective. They framed this as clearly within their sphere of credibility.”

Boyd said brands can no longer afford to be neutral if they want to resonate with their target audience.

“The luxury of standing in the middle of the road and saying, ‘Well, I’m not going to take a position’ — I think those days are gone,” he said. “If you have a really stellar, strong brand, you’re going to have to take a position and be clear about it.”

All three professors said they are using the Gillette campaign as a teaching tool in their classrooms to engage students in conversation about brand messaging, marketing strategy and current events.

“This is very much an opportunity for teachers to use this [ad] as a springboard for conversations with students to think about power, to think about gender, to think about the ways in which we can disrupt or interrupt this notion of boys being boys,” Kehler said.

Added Boyd: “The entire community has to be involved in this. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but it’s one we have to have. We’ve got to revisit this; we’ve got to change accordingly. If all parties are involved, I think we will get there.”