Gillette cuts itself

The Gillette brand may have set the high tide mark for companies coat-tailing on “social activism”.

Its advertisement against “toxic masculinity” unleashed online protest from more than a million people. They flooded Gillette’s online channels. There were 1.3 million official dislikes of the razor company’s YouTube video, ranking it as one of YouTube’s 25 most disliked videos ever.

While taking a position of social issues is very de rigueur, the companies that attempt it in bold ways usually have a marketing history, or a related reputation, values or product. Most companies instead choose innocuous ways of expressing alignment (check your daily LinkedIn feed for examples).

To be fair, Gillette had cleverly already made a very neat on-trend shift from its slogan “best a man can get” to “best a man can be”. The video’s articulation of that strapline clearly made many customers feel they were being told off or lectured to.

The execution is singularly awful. The “short film”, by a prominent feminist activist, has been described by marketing commentator Mark Ritson as a tedious, politically-correct public health video. The suggestions it makes about social conduct and self-improvement are not the product of experts but of the shallow pop-psychology in an executive brainstorm.

Customer behaviour is incredibly hard to shift beyond habits. We’d usually say that the controversy will not result in a loss of sales. But the bitter tenor and scale of the backlash in this case may be more like the Cadbury NZ situation – it may annoy customers so much that they try a competitor. If they then find competitors are better or on par, they’ll switch their purchasing behaviour.