Courting Controversy: Gillette & the New Playbook for Social Messaging

In our contentious political and social climate, most brands choose to play it safe and advertise their products without engaging with any issues that may alienate a portion of their consumer base. Not so with Gillette, which recently released an online ad titled We Believe: The Best a Man Can Get that courts controversy by invoking the #MeToo movement, toxic masculinity, and bullying (among other hot-button issues). The ad, which provoked a firestorm of competing editorials and news coverage, has placed Gillette at the center of an ongoing debate about social messaging from brands.

A lot has been published about the ad’s message and the public’s response. What I’d like to examine is the risk vs. the reward of socially-engaged brand content and how brands are creating a new playbook for effective social messaging.

Touching the “Third Rail”

Gillette is not the first brand to risk consumer pushback by taking a position on controversial social topics. In fact, in the age of ads “going viral,” it’s becoming more and more common for companies to embrace a social message in the hopes of reaching a large audience and wooing new consumers. Recent examples include Pepsi’s “Jump In,” featuring Kendall Jenner at a protest march, Heineken’s “Worlds Apart,” which showed unlikely pairs discovering common ground over a beer, and Nike’s “Just Do It,” which included Colin Kaepernick amongst other high-profile athletes.

Whether these ads succeed at creating new brand loyalties over the long run is up for debate. Some of the companies who “touched the third rail” and risked blowback have regretted it, including Pepsi, which pulled its ad offline after a few days of pushback and ridicule from multiple perspectives. Nike’s Kaepernick ad was a hit, especially among younger people, and although it sparked a momentary trend of upset consumers destroying/boycotting Nike products, the company has since increased in value by over $6 billion.

Whether Gillette’s campaign will create similar results remains to be seen.

The Social Messaging Playbook

In Marketing Dive, research director Tom Ewing examines the results of many socially-engaged ads for the commonalities that predict success or failure (both in public perception and financial results). He writes that “Successful ads with a political theme are, we’ll be honest, rare. But as long as they win awards and drive great press, consumers and brands will be drawn to them.” If brands are going to wade into those murky waters, there are a few key principles to keep in mind:

Stay On Brand

Gillette’s long-term slogan, “The Best A Man Can Get,” provides an interesting dovetail into men’s issues and, arguably, whether men can be “better” men. Addressing issues surrounding contemporary masculinity is therefore in line with the concerns of their target demographic. Interestingly, this particular ad seems to be making a better impact with women than with men, as Adweek notes. Regardless, when approaching social topics, it seems to be most effective when they resonate with your brand identity and core consumer base.

Keep It Positive

This appears to be the major sticking point for critics of the “We Believe” spot. Some viewers are saying that the ad “attacks” or “demonizes” men, and whether you agree with them or not, the ad does veer into darker territory than most. Heineken’s “Worlds Apart,” by contrast, embraced an uplifting tone that made viewers more likely to share it alongside positive associations. Hopeful, empowering messaging seems to resonate better across wide consumer demographics.

Be Specific/Provide a Solution

If your campaign is going to address a social problem, it should be specific about the issue at hand and point toward a solution. Pepsi’s protest march ad was widely mocked for being so vague about what was being protested as to become completely toothless. Heineken, on the other hand, suggested that finding our commonalities could help us bridge our differences. Gillette’s ad hints at solutions but not as clearly as it defines the problem. Part of crafting a positive message is providing hope for a solution – if your product can be part of that solution, even better!

While many consumers claim that brands shouldn’t engage with social issues at all and stick to marketing products, most younger consumers feel differently. In Forbes, Steve Olinsky notes that “a full 91% of millennials” report that they “would change their purchasing decision to support a brand they saw as supporting a cause.” As the buying power and social influence of this demographic grows, brands may have to engage with political and social issues in order to stand out and gain consumer loyalty.

The CFO of Gillette’s parent company recently told Ad Age that sales have not yet been affected by the ad’s release, but that the brand “received unprecedented levels of both media coverage and consumer engagement” with the younger consumer groups they were targeting.


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