Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” Joins A Growing Number Of Ads Challenging Toxic Masculinity
On Sunday, shaving and personal grooming company Gillette introduced a new ad campaign and initiative with a short film. Titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” the campaign and initiative challenge ideas about toxic masculinity. Responses from the public have been mixed; while some have praised the ad’s positive message, others have accused it of pandering or being disingenuous — and still others have gotten defensive, claiming that toxic masculinity is a myth. But Gillette’s ad, while noteworthy, is far from the first ad campaign to deal not only with deeply ingrained societal issues, but also with toxic masculinity specifically. In fact, it joins a growing number of brands who have recently begun using their ads to do just that.
Gillette’s new ad puts a spin on the brand’s longtime slogan, “The Best A Man Can Get.” The slogan originally debuted in 1989 in an ad broadcast during Super Bowl XXIII — which, as Patrick Coffee pointed out at Ad Week, was time in which the United States was a very different place. “George H.W. Bush was president, the Cold War was an ongoing concern, and sexual harassment in the workplace was an all-but-foreign concept,” wrote Coffee.
Responding directly both to our current cultural climate, including the #MeToo movement, and to Gillette's own past, the “We Believe” ad asks if where we are right now really is “The Best A Man Can Get.” The answer it arrives at is not: Times have changed, and that it’s time our concept of masculinity changed along with it. Rather than a masculinity that relies on bullying and harassment to assert itself — what’s often termed toxic masculinity, and which is as harmful to men as it is to people of all other genders — the ad asserts that it’s time for us to build a masculinity with its roots in kindness, acceptance, and courtesy.
Along with the full ad, as well as a shorter, 30-second version of it, Gillette debuted a larger initiative. The plan, according to the brand’s The Best Men Can Be website, is twofold: First, Gillette pledges “to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette” in “the ads we run, the images we publish to social media, the words we choose, and so much more”; and second Gillette will donate $1 million per year over the next three years to “non-profit organizations executing programs in the United States designed to inspire, educate and help men of all ages achieve their personal ‘best’ and become role models for the next generation.” The first recipient of these donations will be the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
But although both praise and backlash has emerged since the ad campaign and initiative’s dual debut, Gillette isn’t the brand or company in recent years taking on issues of this sort.
Advertising has always had a long reach, and many of the toxic messages about hypermasculinity (and sexism, ageism, lookism, and many, many more concerns) have become so deeply ingrained in our culture at least in part because we’ve been absorbing them from ads for decades — centuries, even. According to a 2013 study, a huge number of advertisements geared towards men present or promote hypermasculine ideals; when paired with previous research demonstrating links between adherence to hypermasculinity and dangerous driving, substance abuse, violence towards women, homophobic behavior, and other high-risk behaviors, as Mic points out, it becomes clear how harmful this kind of advertising can be.
But in an attempt to undo some of the damage, an increasing number of brands are now flipping the formula around, using advertising to spread messages tackling and dismantling these harmful ideas instead of perpetuating them. Whether or not they’ve all been successful remains to be seen, but here just a few examples from recent years:
1. Axe, “Is It OK For Guys…”
Axe’s ad campaigns have typically leaned in — really far in — to sexist ideas and gendered stereotypes, so it was quite a surprise when the brand’s 2017 initiative “Is It OK For Guys…” emerged. Featuring questions people have actually searched the internet for, it asked whether it was OK for guys to, say, not like sports, to wear pink, to experiment with other guys, or to be depressed or scared or emotional. The overall message was incredibly different from what we’d come to expect from Axe ads: As the video’s description on the brand’s YouTube page put it, “It’s time to stop questioning what defines masculinity, because there’s no one way to be ‘a man.’ Just be you.”
2. Just For Men, “Be The Better Man”
In the fall of 2018, Just For Men launched their “Be The Better Man” campaign, which painted personal grooming not as something you do to “fix” any “imperfections” you might have, but as something you do to feel like your best self. Its message reminds us that you don’t have to be “the man from the movies,” you don’t have to look like the guy “on the cover of that magazine,” and you don’t have to emulate what you learned from your own dad; rather than needing to be any of these men, you just have to be your own man — although of course if those are the guys you want to be, then go for it. That’s cool, too.
Although the ad’s cast is made up primarily of conventionally attractive men, many of them are shown doing things that break masculine stereotypes — putting on eyeliner, braiding their daughter’s hair, and the like. Basically, it’s a “you do you” message, with an explicit call-out to be “kind and courteous to him, her, them — everyone” as you do it.
3. Dollar Shave Club, “Get Ready”
Dollar Shave Club’s “Get Ready” ad, which debuted in the summer of 2018, aimed for inclusivity, specifically challenging the assumption of masculinity being, by default, cishet. In addition to depicting men who don’t necessarily adhere to society’s narrow standards of conventional attractiveness, the ad also included LGBQ* men, trans men, nonbinary people, and more. What’s more, the people featured in the ad aren’t shown using the products to shave only their faces; it depicts the wide range of uses folks actually put shaving equipment to: Grooming armpits, legs, backs, heads, nether regions… you name it.
Finally, it challenges consumers’ own assumptions about both the company’s products and who uses them. Dollar Shave Club sells tons of personal grooming products — not just shave-related ones — and the ad at once reflects the brand’s offerings and explicitly states that, yes, everyone, including cishet men, spend time on their hair.
4. Peanut Butter Cheerios, “How To Dad”
General Mills obviously isn’t a specifically dude-focused brand, but a 2014 ad for Peanut Butter Cheerios released in Canada tackled stereotypes about fatherhood. Rather than perpetuating antiquated ideas that the only way to be a father is to be largely uninvolved in their children’s daily lives, to leave the day-to-day childrearing to women, and to only interact with their kids in specific ways (often as the authoritarian or as a stereotypical masculine influence), “How To Dad” shows a fast-talking, energic father who “never says no to dress-up,” gets his kids up and ready for the day without relying on a spouse to instruct him in how to do it, plays with his kids, offers emotional support when needed, gives both bearhugs and fistbumps, and can still, y’know, parent (those chores won’t do themselves, kids).
Ultimately, advertisements will always be a part of our day-to-day lives, and someone will always be selling us something. That’s a given. What these ads ask us is — if we know we’re always going to be seeing them — whether it’s better for the messages they send to be positive ones instead of negative or harmful ones. It’s a question worth considering — and hopefully, the answer we’ll eventually arrive at will be for better, rather than worse.