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Ad telling men to be good role models sure hit a nerve

January 26, 2019

Crass commercialism, I thought, when I first heard from a letter writer about Gillette’s new ad, “We believe: The Best Men Can Be,” also referred to as “Boys Will Be Boys.”

It seemed the mass producer of razors for men was trying to glom onto the #MeToo movement to sell more product. Repulsive.

But then I watched the video — by the end, through moist eyes.

They got it. The 1-minute, 48-second video depicts a definition of “toxic masculinity” — fighting, bullying, chauvinism on the street and in the boardroom. Some of the images are from decades ago, suggesting how ingrained such behavior can be. Then the ad pivots around #MeToo and says it’s time to stop making excuses. Men need to hold each other accountable — a scene of a father breaking up a fight between young boys — speak up, take action. Be a role model. The boys of today will be the men of tomorrow, is the message.

The ad, released Jan. 14 on Gillette’s website and social media, went viral. And the backlash — mainly from men — became a tsunami. Some vow to never buy another Gillette product. They found the ad insulting. Objections I hear and read about are that the ad uses stereotypes of chauvinist males to make the point that men need to change their attitudes and actions. How dare they!

“The Best Men Can Be” sure hit a nerve.

Are all men Neanderthals? Of course not. A sweeping generalization cannot be accurate for all. But there’s no dismissing the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct brought to light in the past year, exposing the look-the-other-way culture. Or worse — an acceptance.

Yes, women can be hurtful, too. (And heaven knows, ads have been telling us for years how to be — thinner, prettier, more blonde.) But that’s not the point of the “Boys Will Be Boys” video. It’s groundbreaking in suggesting that even if men aren’t being offensive, they need to stand up to and enlighten those who are. It echos the saying from the ’60s: “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.”

Some find it condescending for a profit-making manufacturer to try to get a competitive edge in the marketplace by telling men how to behave.

I think it pushes us to question what it means to be a male in these times and how we define masculinity. It’s a big pressure on men if they always have to pound their chests to prove superiority. They don’t have to fight. A man can be masculine, yet tender and caring.

The reaction to the ad also raises the question of what is the role of advertising in society? To what extent does advertising reflect society or shape it? (The same can be said for journalism.)

Products are sold through images and emotions. (Think of most car ads — they’re about experiences. The Marlboro man was about image.) Branding is about much more than the sharpness of a razor blade.

Gillette expected debate. “Actually a discussion is necessary. If we don’t discuss and don’t talk about it, I don’t think real change will happen,” Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette’s North America brand director, told CNN Business.

“The ad is not about toxic masculinity. It is about men taking more action every day to set the best example for the next generation,” said Bhalla. “This was intended to simply say that the enemy for all of us is inaction.”

In that regard, it is spot on.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jacqueline Smith at jsmith@hearstmediact.

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