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Thoughts on the reactions to Gillette’s new campaign

I am sitting in the car listening to a remembrance about Jack Bogle, investing hero, who died yesterday at 89. Bogle firmly believed in capitalism, and railed against the greed that permeated investing. He hoped that future generations could be more idealistic and “clean up the mess.” Those words caught my ear as I had been thinking about the current media coverage of not Bogle but Gillette and their new ad.

The backlash against the ad has been significant. Fascinating. Most intriguing – other than folks on social media directing people ditch Gillette and switch to Harry’s (if those folks check out Harry’s social mission and positive masculinity efforts they will probably start trashing those “superior” products as well) – is the outrage about a company trying to tell us how to act and live our lives. The outrage! As if marketers and media and celebrities of all stripes haven’t been doing that… well… forever.

There is no “natural” way to be a man. Or a woman. There is no “way it was meant to be” or “as God intended” – everything we are and everything we do has been taught to us. Identity is a construct created by norms that are shaped by people. Leaders, advertisers, preachers, parents – everyone is handing down and handing around traditions or frameworks that have been created by earlier generations of leaders, advertisers, preachers, parents. There is no natural state. Even an infant starts getting messages from the instant they are born.  Babies receive messages about their gender, and about so much more.  Messages about ability, skin color, size and shape, faith, and how to behave. The messages start immediately. What is okay for a boy? A white boy? A boy of color? A girl? A big girl? A small boy? A Jewish boy? A Muslim girl? Every bit of our identity is a construct from the very start.

Masculinity has been defined over time. Gillette is not doing anything truly radical in producing an advertisement. What is interesting and exciting is what they are saying upfront: we have been shaping norms for years and we are doing it again because we have learned something and want to say something – and we want to sell products in a society that is changing (as societies do) to a new generation of consumers. As they have in the past, they are producing advertising that will resonate with some people and not with others. It will shape and reveal opinions, and – as it has always done – it will shape self-image and social norms.

And it will drive conversations. This campaign challenges people – male identified and female identified alike – to think about how media has shaped their understanding of what it means to “be a man.” The ad shows behaviors that cause pain and actions that interrupt those behaviors. It shows that pain perpetrated by men is experienced by both males and females. And it shows how young men are watching the grown men in their lives, on TV, in the movies, in music. These behaviors form the foundation – a culture where it is okay to make jokes, grab and touch, catcall and control – that supports sexual and domestic violence. I find myself wondering along with Gillette, “Is this the best we can be?”

At REACH, our work starts with these norms. We believe that social norms and individual behaviors can be changed through education and practice at individual and community levels. Attitudes and behaviors are built on social norms, which are shaped through education (media, schools, faith, consumerism, etc.) and practice (what we do every day). Changing attitudes and behaviors requires changing social norms which requires new and different education and practice. Gillette’s ad – and it is an ad – as well as Harry’s online program “Man Enough” and Nike’s “Believe in Something” make up the water in which we swim, the air that we breathe and shape the beliefs that we hold. At the same time, these companies are also influenced by what is happening in our society – a mirror to our changing culture.

Like Jack Bogle, perhaps Gillette sees a generation that will be more idealistic – one that has different views about equity and gender and social benefit. These are also new shavers – and they might be ready to clean up the mess.