Gillette ad with a #MeToo edge attracts support and outrage

The company, known for its razors and personal care products, posted the two-minute ad on social media on Monday (Jan 14). PHOTO: YOUTUBE/ GILETTE

NEW YORK (NYTIMES, AFP) - A commercial for the Gillette razor brand that supported the #MeToo movement and called on men to change their behaviour has triggered a heated controversy online.

In less than two minutes, the men and boys in the new ad engage in a panoply of bad behaviour: bullying, fighting, discrimination, sexual harassment and more.

A line of them, standing behind smoke wafting up from their grills, recites "boys will be boys will be boys will be boys".

"Is this the best a man can get?" the ad asks, turning the brand's 30-year-old slogan into a question and challenging viewers to confront issues like toxic masculinity and #MeToo and to abandon "the same old excuses".

By the end of the clip, men are challenging catcallers, championing their daughters and breaking up brawls.

The company, known for its razors and personal care products, posted the two-minute ad on social media on Monday (Jan 14). Within a day, it was the subject of a battle in which support for its message collided with calls for boycotts, much like the divided response to the 15-month-old #MeToo movement.

While the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs paid tribute in a tweet on Tuesday, many men felt insulted. Some have sworn off the brand.

On YouTube, the ad was "liked" only 67,000 times but disliked 315,000.

"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," conservative actor James Woods tweeted.

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Television personality Piers Morgan railed on Twitter about the ad, calling it "pathetic", "virtue-signalling" and "a direct consequence of radical feminists" who are "driving a war against masculinity".

The ad, developed by Gillette's advertising agency, Grey, was defended and praised by actress Rosanna Arquette, comedian Pete Dominick, screenwriter and director Jeffrey Reddick, Arianna Huffington and others.

Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette's brand director for North America, has pushed back against the criticism.

"This is an important conversation happening, and as a company that encourages men to be their best, we feel compelled to both address it and take action of our own," Bhalla said in a statement.

"We are taking a realistic look at what's happening today, and aiming to inspire change by acknowledging that the old saying 'Boys Will Be Boys' is not an excuse."

Gillette said it commissioned a study of 1,188 adults and found that the results "emphasise the outsized importance of 'soft' skills in today's modern man".

Soon after Gillette's ad appeared online, its rival Dollar Shave Club posted a message on Twitter that seemed to welcome new customers. The post was liked more than 4,500 times, compared with a few dozen likes on the company's other posts.

This is not the first time that Procter & Gamble, which owns Gillette, has echoed progressive rhetoric in its marketing.

The company's Pantene hair products line once ran a "Strong is Beautiful" campaign, which featured football players from the New Orleans Saints, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys braiding their daughters' hair. The #LikeAGirl campaign for the Always feminine hygiene products, which encourages girls to face the fear of failure, shows them playing chess, fencing and drumming.

But in taking a position on the idea of toxic masculinity, Gillette and Procter & Gamble could be dealing with a "hot potato", said Dean Crutchfield, the chief executive of the brand advisory firm Crutchfield & Partners.

"If this is just a quick campaign to get some attention, not something they're weaving into the fabric of their company going forward, it's going to blow up in their face," he said. "This is a huge topic, and it's highly sensitive, and I don't think P&G had done anything as explosive as this could be."

Other companies have also inserted themselves into discussions about sexuality, race, culture and other contentious issues. Years ago, Old Spice wanted to convince men that shower gel was masculine while appealing to the women who were actually buying the product.

The resulting "Smell like a man, man" campaign is now considered a marketing triumph.

Pepsi's 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner was also memorable, but mainly because of the intense criticism it faced borrowing imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement, watering it down and then using it to sell soda. The company pulled the ad and apologised.

Ram trucks met a similar reception last year when it used a sermon by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in a Super Bowl ad.

Gillette is a giant in the shaving industry, but its foothold is shrinking as scrappy competitors offering disposable razor subscriptions capture younger consumers.

Dollar Shave Club was acquired by Unilever for US$1 billion in 2016. Harry's, another razor purveyor, raised US$112 million from investors last year to expand beyond men's grooming.

Sales for Gillette's grooming segment slipped 1 per cent in its most recent quarter. The brand, which has mistakenly mailed free razors intended for 18-year-old men to middle-age women, has tried to stay fresh by experimenting with personalised 3D-printed razor handles and designing blades for sensitive skin.

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