One Gender Scholar’s Response to the Gillette Ad Controversy

Susan Dobscha, Ph.D.

Professor of Marketing, Bentley University

The Gillette ad released this week quickly turned into a gender flashpoint, drawing praise from marketing scholars and ire from news reporters, pundits, and Twitter trolls. It even prompted the Guardian to create four parody ads for products like the FitBit monitor that alerts men when they are talking over women that would serve to address the problem of toxic masculinity (The Guardian, Jan. 16th, 2019).

The praise from marketing scholars also appeared in the Guardian and the Washington Post. Interestingly, neither of those marketing scholars have published in the area of gender, and also interestingly, are both white men. My response is not meant to diminish their responses, but merely to point out the systemic issues related to gender in marketing that clearly bleed from the marketplace into academia. Gender scholarship in marketing has held an “other” status since its emergence in the early 1990s. And gender scholars, who have published about the dynamics of gender in marketing in those journals brave enough to support our work, have long been screaming in the forest with no one there to listen. So, when this Gillette ad kerfuffle began this week, it was only a matter of hours after I posted it to the Facebook page for gender scholars in marketing, that two famous names in our field had been contacted to comment and made those comments. They were good comments, one was positive and praised the brand for tapping into “something that’s part of the popular consciousness” and for taking a moral stand against something that has its tentacles in many areas of society, from families to corporate culture, and apparently, in marketing academia as well. The other commentator was very critical of the ad but did not really incorporate gender as part of the critique. The irony here is that two non-gender scholars are now on record as speaking for marketing academia about an ad that is so clearly about gender. “Toxic masculinity” as a term is borne from feminist and gender scholarship and yet, those voices are missing from the popular press discourse about the ad. I posted on Facebook, “Good for class discussion. Actual gender scholars would have warned about the heavy-handedness of this ad when the target market is so obviously entrenched within in “traditional” (rather than toxic) masculinity. Then the backlash begins and sets things back. That’s what most gender scholars would say. If we were asked.” But we weren’t. So I’m left to scream in the woods, from the comfort of my kitchen, and tell the story of this ad from my (not all gender scholars) perspective, hoping that someone is listening.

In 2012, I wrote a very short piece for Ad Age, entitled “Why Do Marketers (Keep) Getting Gender Wrong.” The Gillette ad manages to avoid some pitfalls that my article had outlined: it did not confuse biological sex with the identity-based, performative nature of gender; it didn’t rely on stereotypes (think Bic pens designed for the smaller hand of a woman); and by virtue of living in New England for 25 years, their board of directors seem “pretty woke.” What happened

here was a clear attempt to speak to an emerging moral issue (toxic masculinity) in a way that seemed designed to raise consciousness, while also trying to sell some razors. It is not unlike the Colin Kaepernik Nike ad in relation to race. And identically to this ad, the people asked to comment on the ad and the response by the public were largely white men (see AMA’s response on their website). Race scholars in marketing had their own take on the ad that was visible to our small, private Facebook communities. Screaming in the trees but only the oaks are listening…

The backlash from this ad will probably make it harder for marketers who are trying to do the right thing by men and women. Backlash, in the age of Twitter, comes swiftly and powerfully. Gillette is an old brand with deep roots in New England. It is the name on the stadium of one of the most successful football franchises in history. Gender politics in New England are complicated and nuanced. And this ad failed to understand that Gillette as a parent brand does a lot more than make razors for men (and women, by the way). By taking a swing for the gender fences, Gillette failed to understand that the men who buy their razors are probably not well-versed in the latest feminist narratives related to toxic masculinity. Hell, even masculinity as a term is offensive to some. As Brian Kilmeade from Fox News stated, “Let’s point out all the bad things that you may say about men, put them into an ad, make men feel horrible, and then say ‘overpay for a razor.’” The path from masculinity to traditional masculinity to toxic masculinity is a long one paved with the works of gender scholars from many disciplines. Gillette decided to leapfrog from a very traditional brand narrative (“the best a man can get) to a hyper-progressive, very complicated, somewhat shaming story about the worst part of being a man. This leapfrogging does not allow for the audience, comprised of customers and non-customers alike, to go on the intellectual journey required to raise consciousness. It skipped a few steps that would have allowed their male customers to be open to the idea that perhaps the way they are being men in modern life isn’t so great. Those types of baby steps are critical when anybody is trying to change the way someone thinks about something, particularly when it is something that requires them to be self-critical. Gender scholars know this because we’ve seen these leapfrog failures before. The Dove ads showing “real women” have been shown to have done harm by giving critics a forum to harshly criticize women’s bodies. The Kaepernik ad also leapfrogged over several levels of awareness. Racism, like sexism, has never just changed overnight. It is a long and arduous process, fraught with setbacks.

In the end this gender scholar wishes Gillette had asked some gender scholars how we thought this ad would play. I would have warned them that they were missing some extremely critical steps in getting their audience to the point where they would be talking about toxic masculinity while eating chicken wings and cheering on the Pats this weekend. I would have explained to them that heavy-handed morally-driven ads must take into account the nuances of gender politics, which includes understanding the intersections of race, ableism, inclusion, political affiliation, and particularly in this case, social class and geodemographics. Gillette: call me. I’m local and will work for (almost) free.

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