• Inna Semenyuk

What marketers can learn from Gillette's controversial "Believe" ad

Created by a British production company Somesuch and directed by Kim Gehrig, Gillette's controversial ad that calls out "toxic masculinity" has generated almost 25 million views on YouTube over a week's time and split the internet into two camps: those who love it and those who hate it.

Part of the wider "The Best Men Can Be" campaign, the ad challenges Gillette's own 30-year-old slogan "The Best A Man Can Get" by displaying scenes of sexism, bullying, sexual harassment and male aggression and encouraging men to "create a new standard for boys to admire and for men to achieve".

"Bullying. Harassment. Is this the best a man can get? It's only by challenging ourselves to do more, that we can get closer to our best. To say the right thing, to act the right way. We are taking action at http://www.thebestmencanbe.org. Join us."

While on the surface Gillette's campaign serves a great purpose, it's a well-executed bad marketing strategy. Here's why.

1. It piggybacks on the current events

Piggybacking on news or piggyback marketing is not new. When done right, this low-cost approach of aligning your brand with a current event or piece of news can result in press coverage and social media engagement that can be beneficial to the company. Piggybacking requires quick thinking and often acting on the spot as most news are short-lived. Oreo's "You can still dunk in the dark" Super Bowl tweet is an excellent example of creative piggybacking. Oreo team saw an opportunity and jumped on it in a fun lighthearted manner, appealing to the audience that watched Super Bowl and beyond. (That's not the only example of Oreo piggybacking on popular events - check out the recent "how you draw an X" tweet.)

Piggybacking on serious matters like a #MeToo movement however is a a different story and can easily backfire. Why? Because companies that have not been part of the narrative and that attempt to relate to a matter for the purposes of commercial gains, often simplify the cause and diminish its impact hence provoking the backlash from people to whom this cause genuinely matters. Remember that Pepsi's commercial with Kendall Jenner hijacking Black Lives Matter movement? Following the outcry, Pepsi quickly pulled the commercial and apologized.

"Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position." - said Pepsi's statement.

2. It exploits human brain's negative bias

Gillette ad exploits human brain's negative bias which means that our brain tunes into and responds to negative events over positive news. This, again, is not a new approach for marketeers: lots of companies have been selling their products as a result of the fear and urgency that they created through their marketing and ad campaigns. Most people are loss-averse and will do anything to avoid the loss of what they have vs putting effort into gaining something new. Data shows that only 10% of TV commercials in he USA in 1960 were negative, while only 14.3% of the ads aired in 2012 were positive.

Gillette, however, goes beyond creating a fear of missing out on the things that a clean shave can attract and the ad feels more like a personal attack on the entire male population, hence a strong backlash from men. (Notice that 687K people upvoted Gillette ad on Youtube and 1.2M people downvoted it. In fact, there are reports suggesting that Gillette together with YouTube manipulates likes and dislikes - see the Reddit discussion here.)

What aspirational lifestyle brands do is empower people to be the best versions of themselves and support the change that is already happening in them. Gillette not only makes it look like ALL men are the reason toxic masculinity exists, but also tells their customers to change, causing the push-back.

3. It is designed to divide rather than unite

Gillette's ad is controversial by design. It portrays men as villains and women as victims, and for that reason it resonates with women around the world who have experienced objectification and sexual harassment and alienates both men who do act badly like the men in the ad and those who do not demonstrate toxic masculinity attributes.

Putting aside the fact that the ad significantly simplifies the problem, it does not invite a conversation. It says that "men are bad and they should change". It makes it a black and white story, with no space for a dialog and growth that it demands from men. The ad is designed to provoke a clash of opinions, to generate press coverage and a social media uproar, and that's about it.

4. It does not reflect the company's true values

Gillette encourages men to be the best versions of themselves and drop toxic masculinity while the company still makes women pay more for their razors (on average, products marketed to women cost 7% more than those sold to men). Instead, Gillette could make steps to abolish the "pink tax" and not overcharge women for the products marketed to them and demonstrate by their own actions how they tackle sexism and inequality.

Without putting money where the mouth is, Gillette's message about fighting sexism loses its value. It's unauthentic and hypocritical.

5. Gillette has not earned its right for this conversation

Last but not least, the question that I can imagine many people who slammed the ad ask is: "Who is Gillette to tell me this?" Does Gillette have moral authority to tell their customers whom they should be and how they should behave? As a producer of utility product (razors that give a clean shave), Gillette has appointed itself as an agent for social change, before it genuinely earned this "title".

Companies are increasingly dipping their toes in social change and social activism, some with more success than others. The difference between those who fail and who succeed lies in the way the companies run their business and how they engage with drive the social change. Bumble empowers women not only through inspirational messages but also through their product enabling women to make their choice, make the first move and take back personal control. ASOS does not just encourage inclusive fashion but offers clothes in different sizes that celebrates all bodies. Following its Colin Kaepernick campaign, Nike's shares reached all-time high in September 2018 because the campaign was aligned with the company's mission "to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world" and relatable for its audience.

With its "Believe" campaign, Gillette chose the wrong way to revisit and reinvent its brand slogan.


When analyzing Gillette's marketing effort, we should remember that the company deals with an increased competition from companies like Dollar Shave Club and Harry's and a shrinking market share. According to Euromonitor, Gillette's men’s-razors market share in the US was 54% in 2016, down from 59% in 2015 and over 70% in 2010. In these condition, the marketing team has a very challenging task to come up with campaigns that keep the brand top of mind for its consumers so I can see where they are coming from with wanting to be the part of the evolving masculinity discussion.

While I do not argue that male masculinity is going through a transformation (recent research findings coincided with the Gillette ad support the message about the evolving masculinity), Gillette chose a wrong way to jump on this wagon. As they alienate their customers, their competitors are waiting with their open arms:

What are your thoughts on this article? Let me know in comments!

Missed the Gillette's famous commercial? Watch it here:

About the author. Inna Semenyuk is a marketing strategist and the founder at InnavationLabs, a marketing consulting firm based in San Francisco. Learn more at http://innavationlabs.com.

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