Gillette, Nike, and social justice

My brother works in selling things. From being a copywriter to a creative director, he’s sold a number of things. He’s won awards for selling things. That’s literally his jam.

(He does not work for Gillette.)

Gillette, and Nike before them, has recently come to realize that their advertising has power to create change for the better (as long as you keep buying their stuff).

Nike clothing is aspirational. We don’t need to buy their products, and with their history of using sweatshops and child labour, we really shouldn’t be buying their products.

Gillette by the same token has a product we don’t need. There exist barber shops, there exist straight and safety razors, there exist wax and other hair removal products. Cheap blades are available to keep safety razors useful. Gillette pretty much invented subscriber lock-in. If they’re to be commended as a business, they deserve a lot of praise in keeping the shareholders happy.

It’s all marketing, and we all fall for it, otherwise my brother wouldn’t be driving a luxury German sedan.

This month, Gillette dropped an advert putting a spin on their slogan, “The best a man can get”, with the very smart “The best a man can be”. In advertising circles, they nailed it. The brand recognition is there, it’s familiar, and all those good things.

As a response, there are generally positive and generally negative camps. In the negative camps are two groups: the people who are on the wrong side of history and don’t realize that toxic masculinity is a problem, and the people who are criticizing on the basis that capitalism is bad and social justice is being coopted to sell product.

This post is not about toxic masculinity, which is a form of masculinity I abhor and will fight against. Rather, this post is about the people who are complaining that a marketing department is co-opting something that people feel doesn’t belong to corporate marketing departments.

Firstly, this is a fair statement. Gillette and Nike and even Tide are using current events to adjust their message. I haven’t seen so many men doing housework on commercials ever. Yes, it’s a way to sell products, and that’s the main gist of it.

But what if they do actually care about society as well? What if Gillette and Nike and Apple (and whichever other corporation is trying to align their products in a way that makes us feel good about it) actually believes their messaging?

That’s simple: there’s no way to know how a corporation feels except through press releases, marketing and advertising. They control the message. They hire people like my brother, who cares about his wife and kids and the environment.

When Gillette talks about the best a man can be, I see a few stories. Firstly, I see a company with sales that might be flagging a little, and they need a new campaign. That’s my default position when I see a commercial. Secondly, I see a company that knows where the money is and that societal changes towards people who are different to the traditional 1950s nuclear family have buying power. Queers and Jews and Blacks and Muslims all need clothing and shaving equipment. So why not use a celebrity endorsement (Nike) or a social justice message (Gillette) to relate to that market?

Yes it sounds skeevy if I say it like that, but it’s no different to me targeting customers who run SQL Server. I can’t do my job if they’re using a product I’ve never heard of. That’s entirely the point of targeted advertising: go to where the market is.

What I’m looking for, and this is the third story when I see this kind of marketing strategy, is whether the extra profits the companies make as a result of dramatic campaigns, is invested in things like education. Do these corporates pocket the profits or do they share them with their employees? Do they donate to charitable organizations? That’s where the true character of a corporation is seen.

I love the new Gillette commercial as an ad. I also love the message. I’m wary of their intention to sell products to people who want to be on the right side of history, and yet this feels right. Coca-Cola might do some feel-good thing that is still advertising sugar water and I’ll forget it in a second, but this I think is shifting the consciousness of the general public to be more aware of what’s going on.

This is the fourth story. We are now talking about what it means to be a man in ways that activism just doesn’t have the time or money to do. A major shift in what it means to identify as a certain gender in public thought, wrought by a razor company.

That’s progress.