Gillette fell into the 'progressive man' trap

Embracing the shift in masculinity is vital for brand success, but Gillette has missed the mark, according to a former Lynx marketer.

It would be easy to ride the wave of popular sentiment and write a whole article on what Gillette has done wrong with its new commercial. Like a number of male-focused brands that have attempted to absolve themselves of any part in creating historical and unrealistic stereotypes of men, Gillette has fallen into the "progressive man" trap.

But let’s begin with the positives.

For a start, Gillette seems to have understood that the concept of masculinity is in crisis. Furthermore, it has acknowledged the importance, from a commercial and social perspective, of changing the narrative about what it means to be a man. It's a timely decision, given that Gillette has been responsible for reinforcing so many outdated and unhelpful male stereotypes.

As a leading brand that has spent years building an image of success for men that has got us where we are now, it’s only right – and, probably, commercially imperative – that it acknowledges this (even tacitly, as in this case). It is laudable, too, that Gillette now appears willing to take responsibility by being a champion for a new kind of men.

And about time, too, given the number of shaving brands that have entered the market that have made Gillette look dangerously out of touch.

So, what went wrong? Well…

Men are in crisis, but they are not the enemy. It’s of course true that some men have done things that hurt women as well as other men, but it is also true that most men are good people, with good intentions and values. Yet this film uses lazy stereotyping that is little better than the rugged models stroking their chiselled chins that populate Gillette’s past advertising campaigns.

The underlying issue is that most men were told since they were boys to behave in a particular way, despite who they really are. They were expected to repress certain emotions and exaggerate others; to perform appropriately so to be considered "real men". The real enemy, here, is the word "perform". If we perform who we are instead of being who we are most of the time, we will live in pain. And so we are.

Anxiety, addiction, a disproportionate number of male suicides, increasing levels of violence to themselves or to others, as well as other symptoms, are showing this clearly. The situation is so bad that the American Psychological Association recently issued guidelines on how to improve male health.

Men are in crisis and not necessarily through their own making. Change is needed. And brand communications can – and must – be part of the solution.

My main issue with Gillette, however, is that the ad has fallen into what I call the "progressive man" trap.

Recently, many brands have sought to counter traditional ways of being a man by presenting men in a more progressive – but equally stereotypical and unrealistic – way. Telling men that all they need is to be vulnerable and emotional is simply trying to force one trait on to them to replace another. And in the Gillette ad, this message is clumsy and patronising.

The end result is a kind of "conservative versus neo-liberal" fight that doesn’t serve men – and, arguably, doesn’t exist in real life either.

A nuanced view

Our recent research at New Macho paints a more nuanced picture of male identity. Traditional men and progressive men are not who you think they are, as we found after talking to 2,000 men and women in the UK. In fact, neither seems like a particularly useful category any more, since men can be very progressive and very traditional simultaneously.

At issue is Gillette’s focus on telling men how they need to behave and its failure to help them feel comfortable being who they really are.

There is no demonstration of any understanding that not all men are the same. Yet this is a message that brands can convey. So let’s build a new aspiration for men – one where men are not defined by performing what they think is expected, but by being true to their honest values and beliefs, and understanding that others might be different.

Time to wake up, Gillette. Because there’s only one thing that will make men the best a man can be: himself.

Fernando Desouches is managing director at New Macho and a former global brand director for Lynx at Unilever

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