Tuesday 18 June 2019

Gina London: 'Gillette ad: capitalism's new face, or merely lip service?'

A still from Gillette's new 'We Believe' advertisement
A still from Gillette's new 'We Believe' advertisement

Gina London

Is it a soulful campaign to raise awareness or is it merely another way to sell a product? Is it a call for men to be better role models for the next generation? Or is it a call that, as the always testy Piers Morgan tweeted, "Gillette now wants every man to take one of their razors & cut off his testicles."?

Yes, by now you must realise I am talking about Gillette and its decision to release an advertisement with a social message flip of its regular slogan, "The best a man can get" into "Is this the best a man can get?"

The video moves through a series of vignettes exploring different outcomes.

Watch two little boys wrestle on the ground while a group of men - including presumably their fathers - stand by without interfering, merely commenting, "Boys will be boys."

Juxtapose that with another version of the same scene, this time with the dads breaking up the duo and explaining that fighting isn't the way to solve problems.

Watch another scene in which men wolf-whistle at a random woman as she passes by, with that of the next version during which one of the men stop the would-be-whistler with a quip of, "Not cool." You get the idea.

Man, did that ad spark controversy.

Talk shows tackled it around the world and a colleague of mine on LinkedIn, Gearoid Kearney, CEO of MyAccessHub, which teaches companies about autism and neuro-diversity using VR simulated environments, was surprised by the level of rancour.

"I thought the backlash that occurred on Twitter - mostly from men between 30 and 40 - was disappointing," he told me by phone.

"I'm 28 and I think we can be better role models for children. The way I see it is that things my father did, I replicated as a child and I do now. I saw my father clean up after the dinner, for instance, and I now do that.

"I have younger cousins. If you use bad language, they'll use bad language. We are role models to the younger generation."

He posted the clip on his LinkedIn page and received numerous comments. Most were in support. But there were also Gillette detractors.

Phil Lynagh, CEO of World Wheel Company in the UK, wrote: "I think brands need to refocus on what they offer to the consumer, something that creates a different experience.

"Moral education is all well and good, but this is not the place or the medium. What next? McDonald's fighting obsesity?"

Well, actually, over the years, McDonald's has run several healthy eating campaigns.

Notably, "It's what I eat and what I do… I'm lovin' it" from about 10 years ago which coincided with Happy Meals changing to include more fruit and veggie options.

More and more corporations are embracing social responsibility as part of their culture. But Carl Rhodes, a professor of organisational studies at Sydney's Technology University, cautions that companies aren't being altruistic when they back such causes.

"Research shows executives pursue ethical behaviour because they think there's a business case for it. It's called the 'market for virtue'," he says. He adds that many businesses put resources behind causes that are already popular while ignoring other pressing issues like stagnating wage growth.

Are companies marketing that they're acting for the greater good because there is already a majority of support for an issue - or are they taking a stand on a matter they truly care about? Is Gillette an example of the so-called "greenwashing effect" - where companies expend more effort appearing to be "green" than actually implementing environmentally supportive policies within their organisations?

Does Gillette also have robust gender-balance protection policies in place within its company?

What's the gender make-up of its board? Positive answers to these questions could put greenwashing criticism to rest.

So, when you take a look at company's claims of corporate social responsibility, look within to find the bigger picture. I'm sure you'll find a mixed bag. And yet, I remain convinced there are at least three positive outcomes:

1 Innovation: Gillette is changing its "masculine" lens. Likewise, when former global head of Unilever's HR, Geoff McDonald, called for the new "lens of sustainability" to innovate a hair conditioner that used less water.

Without putting a socially responsible word like "sustainability" at the forefront of its corporate development model, this innovation might not have occurred. Interestingly, after 25 years with the company, McDonald is still championing social issues - now as a leading campaigner to break the stigma of depression and mental health issues in the workplace.

2 Brand Differentiation: Ulterior motives - or not - aside, Gillette could have continued to simply promote close shaves, but it chose otherwise. Gillette will now stand apart from its competitors by choosing to use its influence in a different way.

3 Long-term thinking: When companies take a social stand, it can be the beginning of transforming its own internal culture. No change - internal or external - happens in an instant. Something has to be the spark.

For me, it's about the spark. I love how controversies spark conversations. It's how we move forward - by coming together to communicate about issues that matter.

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