March 3, 2018

The Gillette Ad

I wake up, slowly.

My wake-ups are not reminiscent of a Disney princess, bounding out of bed while hitting a perfect high C and caressing the squirrel that’s sitting on my window sill. It’s more reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster awakening after having just boxed 10 rounds the night before: not so smooth.

When I go to the mirror in the morning, I don’t pick up a razor, and I haven’t since I was about 20. The last time I shaved my face I was IDed at a bar and my girlfriend at the time got suspicious looks as to whether she was grooming a minor. Needless to say, I’m a happy bearded man who has no need for a Gillette razor.

But just like 101% of the developed world, I know the brand because they’ve been a big part of the print or TV adverts I’ve seen throughout my life. They exist in my memory primarily in the form of one Mr. Roger Federer, who you can’t blame Gillette for going for, seeing as when The Non-Dominational Creator was running us through the Human factory, he evidently sneezed and knocked little RF off the conveyor belt before he reached the “Have-A-Hair-Out-Of-Place-At-Least-Sometimes” bit.


In this article, needless to say, I’ll be examining Gillette’s new ad:

I’ll preface all of this by telling you to please watch the ad and form you own opinion of it. This is vital. We live in a world where it’s easier to read/watch a reaction than form our own opinion. If it’s too easy, it means you won’t remember that opinion in 2 days, let alone 2 hours, and it often won’t influence you to move towards a place of change, if that’s where you want to go.


I think it’s important to preface by talking a little bit about advertising.


Before skipping to the end of this section, think about this: Since the moment you started watching television (when your method of transport was crawling on all fours), up until today, you were exposed to approximately 5,000 advertisements a day, assuming you switched on some kind of device and went outside in a metropolitan area.

You’ve seen a hell of a lot of ads in your time.

But, while the way we perceive visual feats in cinema has changed greatly since 1895, when the first exhibition of Arrival of a Train at La Coitat by The Lumière Brothers caused mayhem to the Parisian audience who witnessed it, our ability to process advertising hasn’t changed a great deal. A child now has a far greater ability to process visual information than an adult somebody in 1950, but just as much susceptibility to a piece of marketing. And the methods used by marketers getting better as our visual processing power improves.

But how did that come about? How did advertising become the behemoth we see today?

The word Advert in English comes from the Latin advertere, meaning “to turn towards”, as in, turn towards something that is getting your attention. However its origins begin as far back as humans have needed to attract the attention, wants, and desires of other humans. Papyrus used by the Egyptians has been found to have had sales messages inside, while political campaigning and “lost-and-found” posters have been found in ruins in Pompeii and Arabia.

An Egyptian advert for a masked-orgy, 2019 B.C.E
An Egyptian advert for a masked-orgy, 2019 B.C.E

It accelerated greatly with the advent of newspapers and magazines in the 16th and 17th century, and with that false advertising and “Quakery” became common (fake ads as well as fake news goes as far back as we’ve had the ability to write stuff down without having to face the person who reads it).

However it was Edward Bernays (not to be confused with Béarnaise sauce — mmmm) who shifted advertising into the form we know now, and without him, I would dare say the world would be a completely different place.

Bernays, a native of Vienna, was highly influenced by the work of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. Harnessing Freud’s beliefs surrounding our natural libidinal (sexual) energies, and the psychic and emotional energy associated with instinctual biological drives, Bernays’ vision was that these forces could be harnessed and channelled by a corporate elite for economic benefit. He saw the masses as inherently irrational and desire-driven, and with the right psychological techniques used by advertisers, their consent could be engineered scientifically, to make them buy stuff that he wanted them to buy.

With these techniques he spearheaded campaigns for major tobacco brands (his 1929 campaign Torches of Freedom associated smoking with women’s rights), aided the CIA’s takeover of Guatemala, and helped countless political candidates gain office.


As a side note, he’s also the great-uncle of Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph! Take that nugget of information as you will.

“But why are you telling me this Sam? Are you trying to sell me something?!”

I hear you ask. Well… Not yet.

By understanding the history of advertising, we can understand its place in society now.

Remember I said we’re exposed to about 5,000 ads a day? That’s a low estimation. It’s probably closer to 10,000, and it’s only going to rise as we, and our children use internet-connected technology more and more. It has a massive influence not only on what we choose to buy, but the groups we associate with, what and who we desire, what and who we fear, what angers us, how we see our bodies, our inner and outer lives, and what labels we assign to ourselves. Ads that are targeted can help us with this even more, zeroing in on what we feel we need to add or subtract from ourselves to attain the utopia we so desire our lives to be.

Basically, it’s incredibly important what messages advertising gives us, because every action we take in the cybersphere is being tracked and watched, and data is being gathered and stored. The Brexit campaign’s secret weapon, Cambridge Analytica, used information gathered from basic sources: twitter, google, facebook, to weaponise it and send a simple message to people most susceptible to its desire for Britain: “take back control” from the EU.

Boris enjoys drawing from past historical figures in his speeches.
Boris enjoys drawing from past historical figures in his speeches.

Yuval Noah Harari, Author of books Sapiens and Homo Deus, wrote that neuroscience has shown there is no such thing as free will, and that manipulation of our selves and thoughts is all around us.

It’s reality now.

However, what we choose to think and how we choose to act, whether it not it comes from our own internal compass, or somebody else, is vital. That is our greatest freedom.

And so now let me take you to SECTION 2.


Perhaps it is no surprise that the ad was conceived of between two non-Brits: Sally Campbell and Kim Gehrig. It can often take an immigrant to hold up the mirror we need to see.

Campbell (top), a New Zealander who left school at 16 as a round peg in a square hole, started out as a Runner in a London production house, before 20 years later founding her own company, Somesuch. Their mantra? “We give a fuck.” It’s as simple as that for Campbell, who has built a company that encourages diversity, both racially and in class, and has nurtured two of the bright female directing stars in the United Kingdom (and now the States), Kim Gehrig and Aoife Mcardle.

Somesuch has produced ads for Audi (featuring a father debating whether to tell his daughter about the challenges she will face as a woman in business), John Lewis (tackling loneliness with Age UK), Libresse (taking a closer look at menstruation and it’s meaning), and most famously Sport England.

The latter’s real world effects were remarkable, influencing 1.6 million women across the UK to start exercising more, and it is now used as a case study in how advertising can have a truly positive effect on people’s lives.

Gehrig, a native of Australia but now London-based, started as an Art Director at an ad agency, before moving into directing ads for clients such as Amnesty International, Uber, Honda, Gap, and Ikea. The resounding theme of her work is social consciousness. This Girl Can featured a poem penned by Maya Angelou and took aim at negative body images, featuring the strap line: ‘I jiggle, therefore I am.’

A film produced for lingerie brand Berlei featured a diverse selection of women ripping off their uncomfortable and ill-fitting bras, while a short film called “You Think You’re a Man” (named after the 80’s Divine song), took aim at the idea of how steroid-infused body building culture could be a cover up for a confusion of how Australian men see the idea of being a “real man”.


So, now we understand the production company who Gillette commissioned to make this ad, and its director. They are socially conscious, and care deeply about gender and the constrictions society has placed upon men and women to live up to perceived normal standards.

But why does Gillette want to break away from their traditional, Federer-weilding branding? Wasn’t that working fine for them? How does a razor have anything to do with toxic-masculinity?

Well, it’s 2019 and we’re well and truly in the age of the startup, and as you may know, Gillette has quite a few competitors. In 2008, it had a 70% share of the market. In 2017, it’s share dropped to below 50%, and it was forced to slash its razor prices by an average of 12%.12% for a company like Gillette is in the billions of dollars in losses. So why take a risk? Why turn to “woke” messaging to try to sell more razors?

Because, as Nosheen Iqbal points out in The Guardian, they’re joining a wave of campaigns that are using a social message to sell a product: “woke washing” themselves. Nike just backed Serena Williams and Colin Kaepernick, Always challenged feminine stereotypes with its #LikeAGirl campaign, Lynx/Axe veered away from using semi-naked women to sell deodorant to men, and Pepsi shot themselves in the foot by having Kendall Jenner become a social activist bringing peace and unity to a rowdy protest by handing out cans of cola to the police. To be fair to Kendall, Malala Yousafzai’s first chapter of her book was on the peace-making effects of fizzy drinks, so she wasn’t far off.

Dan Cullen-Shute, chief executive and co-founder of independent ad agency Creature London, says “research continually shows that millennials want brands that do and mean something,” but believes that Gillette’s execution was clumsy. “I just wish such an important conversation wasn’t reduced to an ad for shaving.”

It’s an interesting perspective, wishing that the world would have more conversations but not doing anything to make such things happen.

Perhaps the Gillette ad is clumsy. It’s slogan “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best,” doesn’t speak to being more than a clichéd statement of motivational advice (and I suppose obvious fact), however the sentiment behind the ad, and the division it has caused, is important.

Ignoring how effective Gillette’s move will be as a money-making strategy for a moment (we won’t know for some years, although initial surveys suggest it has been successful at getting prospective customers into stores looking for their brand), the campaign has two major reasons to be cheerful:

  1. It’s a brand investing time, money, and effort to examine emotional IQ, and how influential it will be to changing and challenging undoubtably negative aspects of our culture. One such negative aspect has been the abuses, overwhelming by men, from people in positions of power to those with less power, many of them sexual. Another is the culture of celebration of needless bullying and that “boys will be boys” which discourages men to step outside the parameters of what a “real man” is and explore themselves and the different realms of their personality.
  2. It’s exposed the breadth of difference in opinion and position in breathtaking terms. As I write the ad has has a like to dislike ratio of roughly 583,000:1 million.

And what of the detractors? You can find them by simply clicking on the youtube link above (all the way) and scrolling down! I will try to paraphrase however.

Some simply don’t like being told what to do by their razor brand, whereas some see the commercial as being active male-hate with a feminist anti-patriarchy agenda. It’s no surprise of course that the issue has become a more liberal vs. conservative one. The socio-cultural movements taking place today are fast moving and divide people greatly.

Writing this has been enlightening, and exhausting, in a “I Want To Read About Brexit Oh My God Why Did I Do That Now I’m Depressed” kind of way. The more reading and research you do, the more you see that this isn’t just about an ad, it’s a mirror being held up to wider society. It’s a reflection of the way that advertising, social media, major changes in status-quo, and changes in the roles of corporations in our lives have all become intertwined inseparably.

The people who made it want to make themselves more “woke”, the creatives who conceived of it want to promote a more progressive way of bringing up boys, and the people who hate it feel threatened by what they see as a feminist male-hating agenda propagated by unchecked liberalism. It’s a hard time to release this commercial as it’s come at a time when a brand addressing race is relatively positively received (Nike), whereas addressing gender is completely divisive and provokes deeper issues society will be dealing with in the next few decades: the role of men and women in society, and in gender norms.

However I feel worst for the men who watch this and feel threatened, because there is a chance, even though it is heavy-handed advertising, to learn about themselves, their upbringing, and the culture in which they were brought up.

Not everything has to be an attack on one’s entire world view. Some blows are dealt with a feather, and are in fact gentle and caring. And it could be that are most entrenched views we harbour are the ones that need shaking most.

So I would say that if you do agree with the messaging in this advert, don’t only try to embody it’s messages, but also try to look empathetically at those who do not. They are the ones who need it most, after all.

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