Three, two, one. That’s the predictable length of time it took for reaction to Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” new video ad to combust. Posted online Monday, the two-minute video for the Procter & Gamble brand begins by depicting men and boys exhibiting bad behaviour—online bullying, sexual harassment, men talking over women. “Is this the best a man can get?,” it asks, a question that echoes Gillette’s longstanding “The Best a Man Can Get” slogan. A male voice-over references #MeToo and “toxic masculinity” and calls for men “to act the right way,” providing examples of a bystander calling out harassment and a father encouraging his young daughter to repeat “I am strong.” The ad’s message—challenging men to be accountable, to intervene, to shelve the “Boys will be boys” excuse—is unassailable. So is the video’s tagline: “Because the the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.” It’s also not original. We’ve heard calls to focus on boys, what they are taught, how they internalize destructive notions of what it is to “be a man” or to be “masculine” for years now, most recently in Rachel Giese’s excellent book, Boys: What it Means to be a Man, published last year.
That’s not to fault a corporation that sells to men for wading into the conversation with a bit of “socially responsible”-destined-to-go-viral marketing. Doing so can burnish the brand. It also risks tarnishing it. Already the Gillette gambit has been negatively compared to Nike’s seismic campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. Turns out some men don’t like being subject to the ad’s “mansplaining.” Go figure.
Had Gillette truly wanted to pave the way for actual change in gender inequities, they could have taken a far bolder step. The men who disproportionately figure in P&G’s U.S.’s executive (only nine of 30 are women; its 13-member board of directors features four women) could have acted “the right way” and also in a truly radical way: by ending the absurd gender-ification and price discrimination perpetuated in the marketing of shaving products.
Anyone who has walked into a drugstore knows the tableau. On one side, mens’ razors packaged in dark blue, orange, and black boasting names that promise stereotypically “macho” performance, endurance, strength, practicality and speed: Gillette offers the “Mach 3 Turbo,” the “Sensor 3,” and the “Fusion 5 Proshield Chill Razor with Flexball Technology.”(You can imagine that someone suggested “The Rambo” at a marketing meeting—and that it was seriously discussed.)
And then there’s the women’s razor section, a sea of pink, turquoise and mint green inspired, it would seem, by the belief that adult women desire Disney-princess packaging. Here you’ll find Gillette’s popular plastic shaver named for the mythological Roman goddess of love, sexuality, and fertility. The “Venus” brand offers the illusion of choice with little differentiation, unless you care about how your razor smells when you’re shaving your armpits: there’s the “Embrace,” the “Comfortglide Freesia,” the “ComfortGlide White Tea Scented,” the “Comfortglide Plus Olay Coconut” and the “Swirl.” There’s also the “Cosmo Pink” (whether they’re referring to the cocktail or the magazine isn’t clear, but, hey, “girly!”).
Focusing on fragrance makes sense when trying to mask the stench emanating from the “pink tax,” the genteel, stereotype-stoking term for gendered price discrimination (otherwise known as women being charged more for the same stuff sold to men while they’re simultaneously being paid less on average in the workplace). The “pink tax” exists everywhere from dry cleaning to clothes but finds its apotheosis in grooming products.
A quick check of regular prices on Gillette razors at Shopper’s Drug Mart bears this out. Two disposable men’s “Sensor 3s”: $13.99. Two disposable “Embrace” Venus razors: $17.99. Eight Fusion Power blades which promise “12 months of shaving” cost $49.99 or $6.25 each; Four Venus blades promising “ComfortGlide with Olay Sugarberry Scented” run for $31.99 or $8.00 each. (Other razor brands show similar pricing discrepancies.)
Of course, it could be argued that the technology required to remove men’s and women’s hair differs given women’s complex curvature and our marketing-driven belief that we need to be seal-like smooth. But come on: Proshield Chill Razor’s “Flexball Technology” can’t come cheap. (In fairness, price imbalances can skew equally illogically the other way: 170 grams of Fusion Proglide Sensitive 2-in-1 shave gel marketed to men costs $7.49; the same size of women’s “Venus with a Touch of Olay Violet Swirl” shaving gel promising “5 times more moisturizers” is $6.49.)
Gillette is a shaving market pioneer; it patented the first disposable razor blade in 1901. It introduced the first women’s razor in 1915, the quaintly named Milady Décolleté sold to combat “objectionable hair” at a time when sleeveless dresses were coming into vogue. (A history of how women’s shaving products have been sold by tapping into fear, anxiety, loneliness, anxiety, desire for sex appeal can be read here. ) In recent years, Gillette’s market dominance has been steadily chipped away at by startups and private labels selling at a lower price. No longer can they count on “today’s boys who will be men tomorrow” to buy their products. Nor should they count on today’s girls who will be women tomorrow. Let’s hope that by the time both the boys and girls of today grow up, we’ll have exposed and shaved away the pernicious inequities in full display on drugstore shelves. Gillette missed its opportunity. Someone smarter won’t.