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: