Gillette’s “We Believe” ad – a bold step, but was it the right one?

Gillette’s “We Believe” Ad – A Bold Step, But Was It The Right One?

The Most Important Thing on the Internet recently was Gillette’s new publicity campaign focused on the behavior of men. The conversation starts with the web video Gillette posted, which is either a long ad or a short film, depending on your sensibilities about such things.

It starts with a question that is designed to turn Gillette’s classic tagline on its head: “Is this the best a man can get?” From there, it depicts various instances of men behaving badly: Boys bullying a classmate, men catcalling a woman, a man lusting after a woman on a fictional sitcom. The video then pivots on an oblique suggestion about the emergence of the #MeToo movement. Then it cuts to actor Terry Crews, speaking during a Senate hearing: “Men need to hold other men accountable.”

That sets up the second half of those men-behaving-badly moments: A dad breaking up a fight between two boys, another dad intervening before bullies can rough up a boy on the street, men telling other men to stop catcalling and chasing after women. The finishing button makes the point that these acts of interference are meaningful, “because the boys watching today, will be the men of tomorrow.”

It’s a bold and unexpected direction for Gillette. Up until now, Gillette had enjoyed a relatively stable existence as “The Brand That Probably Made Your Razor, and Your Dad’s Razor, and Your Dad’s Dad’s Razor.” To produce an ad that essentially scolds its key clientele is no small step in the brand’s marketing evolution.

But does that mean it’s a good video, or a good idea in general? Let’s take a look.

Video Execution

Before we get to message, let’s quickly discuss the merits of the clip on its production quality. And on that measure alone, the ad rates poorly. There are some bizarre beats in the film that ultimately prove distracting:

  • The fictional sitcom is anachronistic – when’s the last time you saw a show in which a man in his shirtsleeves come up behind the dutiful maid with her uniform and feather duster and pinch her on the bottom?

  • The rapid-fire, mini-montage of news reports starts with the very real Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks, but then zooms out to show screens of very fake news reports alongside her.

  • There’s a scene of young people at an outdoor party, mugging for the camera, with no interaction between men and women at all, which is revealed to be appearing on a TV screen watched by three teenaged boys. Is it a music video? We don’t know, and it’s never explained, other than “boys are watching this.”

There’s a story that Gillette is trying to tell through its short film/long ad. It’s a valuable, worthwhile story. But the execution of the ad is so muddled, it loses the plot somewhere along the way. It conflates the #MeToo movement with general bullying – two very important issues that our society needs to confront, and issues that certainly have some overlap in their casts of characters, causes, and symptoms. But, the two issues are huge on their own, and it’s a fine line to walk when trying to stitch them together. There might be an elegant way to do that – perhaps a depiction of the chain of events that starts with a bullied boy who grows into a bully, and then an abusive partner – but this ad missed the mark, badly.

From a production standpoint, it feels like the ad started with a pitch meeting in which many ideas were floated, and then it was produced using a few too many of those ideas all at once. It’s the Mr. Potato Head of ad campaigns. The reality of the two-minute video is basically Goldilocks in reverse, where it probably would have been stronger if it was either a shorter vignette about just one of these ideas, or a longer version that fleshed them out more. The middle ground between the two approaches doesn’t quite work, and that may be part of the reason the ad is falling flat even with those who generally agree with the overarching message.

Gillette vs. Nike vs. Dove

Back in September, Nike published a short film/long ad that similarly set the world briefly afire. Undoubtedly, you’ve seen it.

Like Gillette’s ad, Nike cleverly takes on the company’s own iconic slogan – “Just Do It” – with a faceless narrator repeatedly suggesting, “Don’t do [an impressive thing] [something way more amazing].” It challenges the viewer to do more, be more, reach higher. It also challenges the viewer to defy expectations, even if doing so has consequences.

And that’s when we see who the narrator is: former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose sideline protests against police brutality – and subsequent refusal to back away from the protests – have led to his unofficial banishment from the NFL. The line he delivers as he turns to reveal himself to the camera arrives like a thunderclap: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The Nike ad demands you to believe you can do things nobody else thinks you can do. It inspires you to push past the limits, whether they’re from other people or your own doubts.

In a similar manner, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign – now in its 15th year – challenges western conceptions of beauty, encouraging all women to feel beautiful, to express themselves as beautiful, despite the fact that the images they see in magazines and ads for cosmetics and clothing rarely match what they see in the mirror.

The Dove ad celebrates the universality of beauty – a poignant message about our acceptance of those from other cultures and ethnicities – and other films in the campaign have pointedly, elegantly examined how women are often plagued by their own perceived flaws, versus how others see their best features.

Both of those campaigns challenge, but they do so in an aspirational way. “Don’t let the status quo limit you,” they say, “make the status quo change to meet you.”

Both campaigns take time away from pushing the brand and its products to make grander statements about the culture, with direct appeals to the consumer to make the world a better place in some way tangentially related to the brand. Nike wants you to play football in Nike cleats, sure, but it wants you to do so even if your gender or your disability are supposed to mean you can’t. Dove wants you to use its beauty products to improve the look of your skin, but it also wants you to celebrate the beauty you already possess, even if our narrowly-defined standards don’t seem to allow for it.

The Gillette ad also challenges us, but it gets there with a very different tone, and that makes all the difference. Nike’s and Dove’s ads are pep talks. Gillette’s ad is a scolding. It tells men to be better, because they have allowed misbehavior to run rampant for too long.

And let’s be clear: It’s a good, important message. But, the ad chastises the (ostensibly male) viewer, giving him a guilt trip about all the bad things men do. Whether you feel like men deserve such a talking-to is a separate conversation, but as they say, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Empowering is a better method for engaging audiences than excoriating.

That is undoubtedly part of the reason Gillette’s ad has not received the same warm reception Nike’s ad did. Although the Kaepernick ad drew plenty of criticism and ridiculous displays of misguided anti-Nike protests (if you buy the product only to burn it, you still gave the company your money) Nike’s approach worked. Nike not only didn’t suffer any business consequences, its sales rose 10% according to an ABC News report.

The backlash coming at Gillette, on the other hand, could be more significant and meaningful to its business. As Josh Barro notes in New York Magazine, Gillette “already has about 50% market share, which limits its ability to acquire new customers through demonstrations of shared values.” Nike is certainly a behemoth in its industry, but its share of the multi-billion-dollar sneaker market, while larger than any competitors, is still well below such a dominating figure — let alone its standing in the global apparel market, which is an even bigger pond.

Nike’s risk of alienating people who probably already weren’t that interested in their product to begin with was dwarfed by the gains it stood to make in a crowded, fragmented market. In a constant battle with Adidas, Under Armour, and other top brands, one could argue that Nike stood to benefit even from the controversy surrounding the Kaepernick ad as it aims retain and attract new customers. Gillette’s risk is more significant compared to the relatively small potential for reward, especially as Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s continue to claw away at the market.

Gillette’s motivation and early results 

Stepping back from the ad itself, let’s examine Gillette’s motivation to thrust their brand into the middle of a highly contentious climate of social politics in the media. The old sayings are “all press is good press” and “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” Gillette is banking on those maxims in a time where the brand’s buzz appeared to be waning in the presence of disruptive grass-roots brands like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s. As the Goliath to their Davids, Gillette appears committed to asserting its big-brand power in following the model of Nike’s recent campaign success. While earnings reports will ultimately determine the ad’s impact on the business overall, we can start looking at some more immediate indicators of success.

An interesting leading indicator is overall brand buzz, encompassing everything from press coverage to trending brand search volume. In that realm, it’s hard to argue the ad wasn’t effective – its influence on getting the brand into the news cycle is unmistakable; few brands were more at the center of watercooler and social media conversations last week. According to Google Trends data, which goes back as far as 2004, Gillette hit its peak for brand name search activity in the wake of the ad going public. In fact, Gillette’s previous peak over that that 15-year span equaled only 73% of this week’s volume of brand searches in the U.S., and 66% on the global scale. Not only did the ad increase brand awareness, it did so outside of the U.S. even more than it did domestically. 

As a lagging indicator of success, we can also look at the stock price of Gillette’s parent company, Procter & Gamble. Shares dipped in the immediate aftermath of the ad’s unveiling on Jan. 13, but by the end of last week, the stock had rebounded to remain flat. During its earnings call on Jan. 23, Gillette said its sales haven’t been adversely affected by the controversy – though it’s worth noting that there were no meaningful gains reported as a result of the ad, either.

In Conclusion

We encourage brands to be bold, to be willing to take risks. The best marketing is often that which stands out from the crowd, opens minds and sparks conversation. Brands should be open to taking on difficult moral and societal questions, particularly when their mission and goals align with a strong message, but these kinds of statements must be made carefully, and with a singular vision. Gillette’s ads sparked conversation, for sure, and that’s a benefit of the risk the company took in producing its “We Believe: The Best a Man Can Be” ad. The execution fell flat, however.

Time will tell as to whether the ad will sell any razors, or if it created enough of a backlash that customers will turn to a competitor. Did it change minds? The answer to that question seems doubtful.

(Main photo courtesy Gillette/YouTube)