Advertising involves a certain amount of misdirection.
In early May of last year, for example, Wells Fargo announced that it was “a new day” for the scammy, scandal-plagued bank. It did so in a widely-promoted ad campaign that made prolific use of the “re-” prefix. The bank was “renewing” and “recommitting” itself to regaining the trust of its customers. “Established 1852, re-established 2018,” read the tagline, as the bank made its sincerest promises to change and do better.
Then, the following August, reports surfaced that a “software glitch” had resulted in “nearly 400 Wells Fargo customers [losing] their homes when they were accidentally foreclosed on,” and that fiduciary advisors in the bank’s wealth management division had systematically steered their high-net worth clients to buy unnecessary financial products with onerous fees. This was all par for the course at Wells Fargo, having already made a habit of launching apologetic ad campaigns attesting to their reformation, only to turn around and breach their customers’ trust anew with some fresh ignominy.
So what went wrong with all those marketing campaigns? Nothing, really.
Institutionally, Wells Fargo doesn’t exist to produce “trust” or “renewal.” It exists to sell financial products — like loans, insurance, and lines of credit. In fact, the bank has dedicated itself to this goal with such a fanatical intensity that it has periodically violated its fiduciary responsibility to its customers and committed galactic errors with other people’s money. The intent of all Wells Fargo ad campaigns is simply to enable the bank to continue to sell these products unimpeded. The fact that some of its ad campaigns reference the bank’s wrongdoing only reflects that it was unlucky enough to get caught — which in turn became an impediment to its revenue-raking.
This is the proper context in which to view Gillette, which recently used a zingy advertising campaign to inject itself into the larger media zeitgeist.
Gillette pulled out all the stops with this ad campaign. Its components include a long-form video commercial, a website full of optimistic messaging about steering the entire concept of masculinity in a new and virtuous direction, and a multi-platform social media spread that allows consumers to participate in a campaign to help redefine what it means to be a man. The company is clearly attempting to catapult what it deems to be an important message into the wider culture.
And that message is definitely “Buy these razors for your face.” It just came dressed up in woke clothing, pleasingly informed by of-the-moment sentiments, summarized like so on the company website (original emphasis preserved):
It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man. With that in mind, we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and coming communication and reflecting on the types of men and behaviors we want to celebrate. We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.
From today on, we pledge to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette. In the ads we run, the images we publish to social media, the words we choose, and so much more.
The campaign is engineered to mine as much buzz from as many sources as possible. It’s a heat-seeking missile aimed at the thinkpiece industry. It’s also a kind of political Rorschach test built to twig the amygdalas of anyone at the intersection of outrage-prone and Twitter-adjacent.
The only thing this ad campaign isn’t? A commitment to do anything other than sell razors.
If you scratch beneath the surface of this ad campaign, you’ll realize that the thing that seems novel about it — the way it sparks a wide conversation about how men might improve themselves — isn’t really novel at all. Women’s experience with “advertising based on the premise that you need improvement” is so ubiquitous that, once you start paying attention to this dynamic, it seems like it forms the basis of almost all advertisements in history.
As if to underscore this, Procter & Gamble’s corporate Twitter account, immediately before the company posted about Gillette’s new ad campaign, shared this tweet:
Procter and Gamble erased our freckles with a magic wand at CES 2019 – CNET https://t.co/kJYp8sxEVe
— Tania Gonzalez (@TaniaGlezAZ) January 9, 2019
Where do women learn that their freckles are so unsightly that they need to deploy a “thermal inkjet printer for your face” to “erase” them? They learn it from advertising.
As Gawker once reminded us, “Brands are not your friends” — a truism that holds today. Friends make commitments to one another that are outside the boundaries of what is exclusively self-serving. Brands don’t because brands can’t.
It may look like Gillette has made a deep investment in the idea that it can help elevate society by helping to redefine masculinity, but it hasn’t. The company is not going to author studies on the impact its work is having on society’s notion of manliness. There’s never going to be a boardroom meeting where junior executives, responsible for delivering these changes, deliver PowerPoint presentations quantifying the progress the company has made in this area of social progress. You’re not going to see Gillette’s top brass resign amid their failure to make men better; shareholders are never going to make this part of their calculus.
There’s never going to be any sort of accounting for whether or not Gilette was successful at combating toxic masculinity, which means the company is not sincerely taking responsibility for it.
Of course, it’s possible to feel powerfully affirmed by watching Gillette’s ad and the way it insists that humanity is perfectible, that decrepit notions of masculinity aren’t fixed in place, and that we’re capable of raising a better generation of boys. If that was your experience with this advertisement, it’s probably demonstrative of the fact that you were already leading a life of just values. Take whatever energy and inspiration you need to keep it up, and do so without regret.
Just remember that this is all a reflection of your own commitments, not Gillette’s. This ad campaign is nothing more than a shiny, clattering object tossed into a crowded room — the shine of the object and the arc of the toss having been ruthlessly engineered by brand marketers to move the maximum number of units. Having been thrown, Gillette is going to simply walk away, on to the next big thing that might possibly convince you to buy a razor. For all anyone knows, the next time Gillette comes to us with a revolutionary idea that will change the world, it could just be a sixth blade.