Big brands speak out and stir controversy


“Boys will be boys.”

Whether it is used to reference bullying on the playground or sexual comments in the locker room, this phrase has been thrown around by parents, coaches and lawmakers for decades. But on Monday, Gillette’s latest ad, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” took a stab at toxic masculinity, becoming the latest global brand to publicly take on a political issue.

The ad, posted on the Proctor and Gamble-owned company’s social media accounts, played on its own slogan “The best a man can get” to address the #MeToo movement and a need for accountability among men, sparking immediate controversy. Within a day the post on Youtube had 1,700 likes and 10,000 dislikes. Today, after a week, the ad has almost 24 million views, 642,000 likes and 1.1 million dislikes. Strong reactions have come in many forms, including calls for boycotts from long-time Gillette customers and one angry comment after another sprawled across social media.

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Nationally, the conversation has come across as extremely polarized. Comparatively, a Wire survey conducted on campus this week shows that Cal Poly students’ reactions have been more muted. After watching the ad, almost 80 percent found the Gillette brand to be favorable or very favorable, but over 10 percent reported that they will definitely not or are unlikely to support this brand after watching the ad. 12 percent of respondents found it to be “preachy” and 17 percent found it “generalizing” all men, but 56 percent felt it was “important” and “valuable,” and 71 percent also found it “relevant”.

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But why all the backlash to begin with? Marketing professor Brennan Davis explained the controversy in more technical terms. “Data is either ‘descriptive,’ telling us what is, ‘predictive,’ telling us what we think is going to happen in the future or it’s ‘prescriptive,’ which tells us what needs to change and how can we move forward and actually do something better,” he said. “Looking at this Gillette ad, I think it ran into a little bit of trouble in these categories because even though they were trying to do something that was prescriptive, meaning they were trying to say ‘Let’s do better’ as men, there were a lot of men who took that as descriptive. They took it to say ‘All men are like this,’ and I think a lot of men may have taken offense to this implication.”

But supporters have come in large numbers, too, and many of them have taken to social media to thank the company for advocating that men hold each other accountable in face of the #MeToo movement.  

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Business administration junior Teddy Papa spoke highly of the ad for its relevance and importance in society at this time. “I watched and my initial reaction off the cuff was ‘This is fantastic.’ I am a huge fan of companies using their influence to make statements and take strides,” Papa said. “If you look at a brand like Gillette, their commercials in the past are beautiful men with the rugged jawline and it kind of perpetuates toxic masculinity. So the fact that they are doing something counter, I think is great.”

“If the consumer economy had a sex, it would be female,” writes Forbes journalist Bridget Brennan, and some speculate that Gillette was thinking exactly that when they released the ad. Because although the company may have rubbed many men the wrong way, the reactions from women seem to be significantly more positive. Data from the past decade shows that over 75 percent of consumer purchases are made by women and that women are purchasing over 50 percent of male-targeted products for their homes, so Gillette might not be losing out as much as some think.

Business administration junior Marie Blukher vocalized her support for the ad by re-posting it on Facebook. “I thought the commercial was incredibly powerful and demonstrated how all men should act in order to make the world a better place,” she said. “I also think they made it very clear that there are many men that are already great examples of respect and accountability, but this behavior should be expected for all men.”

Many people struggle to understand why the ad is controversial at all. “It is circular. It is an ad criticizing toxic masculinity and the exact response to it is toxic masculinity,” Weber said.

Gillette is not the first company to release a campaign capturing public attention in this way. Over Labor Day weekend in 2018, Nike released its “Dream Crazy” campaign starring Colin Kaepernick and stirred a lot of controversy. Many viewers thought that this outward support of the athlete, who had been kneeling for the National Anthem as a form of protest, was not Nike’s place.

Yet, according to Time Magazine, Nike saw a jump in sales of over 30 percent that weekend before leveling out again later in the month. Additionally, the company’s Instagram account gained 170,000 new followers when the ad aired, and today the ad has over 27 million views. According to Survata data, “those who reported having seen the Nike ad are more likely to view Nike favorably than those who have not seen the ad (29 percent to 16 percent of survey respondents).”  

After watching the Nike “Dream Crazy” ad, almost 70 percent of Cal Poly survey respondents said they would probably or definitely recommend or buy from this brand. But when asked to associate words with the campaign, the population proved to be pretty split. While 62 percent said the ad was “inspiring” and 51 percent said it was “important”, 29 percent also found it “provocative” and 47 percent called it political.  

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Although many say that there is no such thing as bad publicity, Weber’s previous research, which is still in review, on instances of firm political advocacy—as seen in the Nike and Gillette ads—predicts that there is just as much of a chance for these brands to see a loss in a loyal customer base as there is for them to gain market share in a new sector.

Similarly, Davis had his own skepticism about brands’ true success after taking a big risk in publishing a political campaign. “For big brands I don’t think that [controversial campaigns] are necessarily a great marketing strategy, but I think that they’re expending some of that capital that they have for what they truly believe is something that is important to society,” Davis said. “So when you see a Nike or Gillette doing these things, I think we are looking at some authentic messaging rather than marketing strategy which is completely valid.”

Prior to 2010, though, companies were not speaking out in the political ways that they are now, according to Weber. He and his colleague conducted extensive research on this topic and found that the number of stories written by The New York Times on firm political advocacy has steadily increased since 2010.

This phenomenon followed the Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. FEC, which is considered a landmark case in corporate law because it established corporate personhood. This is the idea that large companies can function with some rights similar to a human being, including the ability to support different political ventures. As Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people, too.” Because large donations from these companies are so vital to many politicians’ campaigns, it is unlikely that they will ever vote to reverse the opinion of the Citizens United case. Weber speculates that these large political campaigns will only continue to grow in number in the future.

In addition to this firm political advocacy, Weber explains that there are also other ad campaigns that often make a lot of noise, as well, but instead demonstrate corporate social responsibility. Companies displaying corporate social responsibility also preach support for large, albeit less controversial, social issues that all stakeholders are willing to support. This is demonstrated in Patagonia’s environmental initiatives or in campaigns like Aerie’s “#AerieReal” campaign or Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, both of which support body positivity and encourage women to embrace their natural beauty. These ads often receive substantial support, and Weber’s research shows a direct correlation between ads demonstrating corporate social responsibility and an increase in sales. In response to Dove’s immensely successful Real Beauty campaign, the company saw a corresponding jump from 2.5 billion to 4 billion in sales revenue following the release, according to AdAge. Ever since Aerie announced its #AerieReal campaign and vowed to stop photoshopping models in 2014, sales have responded positively. According to the Huffington post, the first fiscal quarter of 2016 showed a surge of 32 percent in sales, following an increase of 20 percent in 2015. This year, Aerie extended its campaign to include women with medical conditions and disabilities, again receiving immense support.

“When you walk down the soap aisle at Target or some other large store, you have 100 different soap brands to choose from. It’s overwhelming and you might just pick randomly except that if you see a product or a brand like Dove and you remember an ad that moved you then you might just grab that brand as someone who is wanting to support that message of natural beauty and self esteem in women,” Davis said.

So do consumers want the brands that they know and love to speak out in these ways? Political or not? In the midst of Gillette’s release, the answer feels unclear.

Weber says ‘yes,’ due to the unconscious guilt built into us all when we meaninglessly consume. “Companies are now trying to give us ways to feel better about buying their products,” he said. “Consumers are willing to spend a dollar or two more to feel good about their personal consumption.”

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Q22. Do you think a company should use their platform to address current social issues (diversity, gender, race, etc.) like those displayed in these ads?

According to the survey data, 75 percent of Cal Poly respondents believe that companies should use their platforms to address current social issues. This confirms the well-researched hypothesis that younger generations are more likely to buy products based on company values than ever before. The 2018 Edelman Earned Brand Study revealed that 64 percent of consumers now buy based on belief—a number that has increased by 13 points since the previous study in 2017. “These Belief-Driven Buyers will choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on where it stands on the political or social issues they care about,” Edelman reported on its website.  

Papa said that because of the unparalleled platforms and opportunities these companies have to spur social change, they must use their voice to do so. “I support it because if they don’t [speak out], then who will?” he said.

And perhaps the controversy isn’t unwelcome, but instead what these companies anticipated all along. “They are actually forcing a lot of conversations that we would have never had, including this one right?” Weber said. “The uncomfortability is growing pains. Maybe that’s the optimist in me but with this [Gillette] ad that is the way I see it.”

*The Wire Survey reported here had a sample size of 97 current Cal Poly students, 32 male and 65 female. With small sample sizes, be cautious of applying generalizations to the student population. 

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