Controversial “The Best Men Can Be” Gillette Ad Is Actually Brilliant

Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” short film is actually the culmination of a longer marketing campaign, and a good one at that. Cause marketing isn’t exactly new, but we have certainly heard a lot more about it over the last few years thanks to the Internet and social media.

It used to take a prohibitively expensive Super Bowl commercial in order for brands to drum up this much ruckus over an ad campaign, and so many brands would save their best stuff for the big day. Gillette, as seems to be becoming increasingly normal for brands, didn’t need a football game to capture the attention of the nation. And outrage, too.

All they had to do was have the audacity to use an ad campaign to suggest that it’s good for men to stand up to bullies, encourage compassion and peacemaking, and to not turn a blind eye or stand idly by if they see sexual harassment taking place.

The concept and tagline, “The Best Men Can Be,” isn’t exactly new. Gillette has been using the tagline “The Best a Man Can Get” for three decades now, and it ran standalone stories featuring fathers teaching their sons to be their best, like the one featuring Seattle Seahawks linebacker Shaquem Griffin and his dad, throughout the 2018 football season.

And as I already mentioned, cause marketing, where brands use their ad dollars to also raise awareness for a variety of themes or causes, isn’t new, either. It varies in its subtlety, certainly, but it’s not as if Gillette has invented a new form of cultural communication. Ram Trucks did it when they used a snippet from Paul Harvey’s famous “God Made a Farmer” speech. Both Budweiser and 84 Lumber have taken on immigration. Focus on the Family did it when they made a pro-life commercial featuring Pam Tebow and her son, Tim Tebow, that aired during Super Bowl XLIV. Dove has done many, like their extensive “Real Beauty” campaign, some of which we’ve covered on this very blog.

The willingness of brands to use cause-related storytelling as a means to strengthen a company’s bottom line looks unlikely to go away in the near future. If anything, I suspect we will see more and more companies putting time and money toward aligning their brand(s) with causes that make sense to them.

Which is a double-edged sword. Triple-edged, even, if that were a thing.

Cause marketing as a part of pop culture, especially in an age of fake news and increasingly cautious consumers, will likely never escape the proverbial “sniff test.” Many consumers know inherently that, while probably truly important to a few people who work for the brand in question, most causes that brands get behind are being used in calculated ways. No matter how noble it may appear, the assumption goes, it’s still all about the Benjamins. If a cause turns out to be truly toxic to a brand’s cash flow, then that cause will be quickly dismissed, so why should we pretend to care about brands pretending to care?

Even so, our response to the storytelling of cause marketing campaign tends to be consistently inconsistent. When a brand’s promoted cause or social commentary happens to align with our own personal values, then we’re happy campers. “Hey, regardless of potential monetary motive,” we reason, “it’s nice that such a positive message is getting out into the world.” When an ad campaign runs counter to our deeply held beliefs, though, we cry foul. We want the brands to just “shut up and just sell me stuff.”

The best examples of cause marketing tend to feature two important characteristics: great storytelling and a cause that unites people. Which is why the outrage over Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” campaign, which seems to have both characteristics, is particularly fascinating.

The value that it espouses—that men are strong and that their strength is best used for helping people and upholding justice—seems at face value to be a universally acceptable theme. Who among us doesn’t think that a father should teach his children compassion? Who among us wouldn’t want our son to speak up and intervene if they encounter a man sexually harassing a woman? Who among us wouldn’t want a man to step in if he saw a child being bullied? The Gillette ad is a reminder that that is, and should be, how men act.

In spite of those positive and supposedly universal messages, reactions to the short film have been mixed. Some have praised it for depicting positive examples of masculinity to counter negative examples, but others are upset because they feel that it disparages masculinity as a whole, with some even decrying it as anti-male propaganda. If nothing else, this highlights the tricky nature of storytelling and cause marketing in a post-millennialist culture where everyone is tempted to hyper-individualize and subsequently validate in stone their own hot take on each and every story they encounter.

Here’s the thing, Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” campaign is an encouragement of and call to something that already exists and they aren’t trying to pretend as if they invented the idea of healthy masculinity. One only need look as far as the above-mentioned Gillette ad that aired frequently during autumn 2018 featuring Shaquem Griffin and his father as one small example of that.

Does a brand have all the answers to our society’s ills? No, only in God can those be found. Can a clean shave change the world? No, only God can. Can Gillette raise all of our sons for us? No, only we can do that (and only then with God’s help). But does that mean that Gillette (or any other brand) shouldn’t ever try to make a positive, encouraging difference along the way?

Why is the Gillette ad brilliant? Take a look around, a company that sells razors has nearly the entirety of the popular culture landscape talking about healthy masculinity and what it means to teach boys to be good men right now. The characteristics of a good man found in Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” ad — courage, compassion, and self-discipline — can all be found (plus a few more) in Focus on the Family’s article, “What Boys Need to Learn to Become Good Men.”

Good media discernment applies to all levels of media, not just the movies we watch, and so that means applying it to the myriad commercials we see. Not a one of us is always going to agree with the causes that brands choose to support, but in Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” short film we have a powerful example of how a brand can use good storytelling to underscore the importance of men boldly taking on their mantles as fathers and role models who can help raise and shape a generation of strong, compassionate men (and, yeah, probably sell a few razors in the process).