There has been a lot of debate about the merits of the new Gillette ad. Following is an extended version of my opinion piece that was published in the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday 22 January 2019…
Gillette is the latest brand to have a go at associating itself with a social cause. It follows Nike’s campaign anchored by Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who reintroduced the humble art of kneeling as a protest against police brutality. Both seem courageous, even radical.
Surely it was this sort of disruptive courage that Pepsi had in mind when so many people, who should have known better, gave a green light to the highly stylised train wreck of Kendall Jenner bringing harmony to the black lives matter movement.
Given the subtleties and complexities of the causes themselves, Gillette and Nike manage to get away with it, but Pepsi was not so lucky, it really was overplayed. But the problem, which I’m getting to, is the same.
Jane Caro, a prominent advertising person, says “this is now what brands must do. They must stand for something. Not only are they filling the vacuum left by our political leaders, but you can no longer bore your way into consumers’ heads. By standing for something, you get your audience to do your distribution for you via their own social media feeds whether they are for or against.”
Firstly, I question the idea that this is what brands “must do.” More importantly, its just too cute to suggest that standing for something is all the rage, and it is even more ridiculous to say it doesn’t matter whether people are for or against!
It is the ‘for or against’ bit that is critical to what is going on in these ads. The whole point is that the producer knows that the overwhelming majority of the audience (that counts) supports the cause. That is, the cause has a level of orthodoxy about it that, even while it might seem courageous for a brand to be associated with the cause, the reality is most people have already decided they support the cause.
What proportion of the population is in favour of domestic violence or bullying? What tiny proportion of the population doesn’t want boys to have good role models? I’m sure it is far fewer than those that buy Schick razors.
Right side of history
The same applies to others who seek to co-opt causes. For example, it is commonly accepted that Qantas was a hero brand in the fight for marriage equality, in the same way that many believe that Get Up! was instrumental in the release of David Hicks. Very convenient for both Qantas and Get Up!, unfortunately just not true.
The marriage equality groundswell had already risen well before Qantas got on board. And the release of Hicks was 99% John Howard clearing the decks ahead of an election.
What Qantas and Get Up! did do, and what Gillette has also tried to do, was read the tea leaves correctly and choose to be on the right side of history. There is nothing so courageous about doing that, just good business.
Yet the problem doesn’t go away. Brands are no substitute for political leadership as Caro suggests. Rather, what we are getting is a ‘conscience-wash,’ it is an attempt to co-opt the cause. It is almost parasitic and a type of theft, taking something the public care about in order to advance the interests of the business, without having paid for it (if you excuse the ad production costs and paid media time) or having contributed to the cause in any other meaningful way.
It is as disingenuous as the Steve Smith’s confessional for Vodafone, conveniently linked to a mental health cause.
Am I too cynical? Before answering, it is worth asking where are all the brands taking a stand in the leadership vacuum on issues that don’t have orthodox support from their consumers, like asylum seekers, numerous indigenous causes, pill testing or injection rooms?
All up, what the Gillette story reminds us of again is that the advertising industry is still very one-dimensional. The producers of these type of ads still think they are in control of the message and the meaning. They think that because the cause is cool the brand will be cool simply by making a highly produced flagship ad. But it is still a one-dimensional, one directional ad.
To be fair to Gillette, there is the bestamancanbe.org site, which promotes giving away $1 million a year to partner organisations that help men achieve their personal best, and there is currently one partner on the site. But one suspects this is largely a parlour game aimed at legitimising the claim being made over the cause and to give some social media authenticity to the whole exercise.
Unfortunately, there is a very long way to go to understand how social media, especially its interactivity and the transfer of power back to the consumer, might be most effectively approached by brands that genuinely want to do things differently, rather than just insult our intelligence.
The place to start is to recognise that in today’s media environment faking it is simply not an option. Next, it must be accepted that you cannot be totally in control, and trying to be in full control typically backfires. Negotiated, symmetrical communication is the way forward.