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Gillette and the thin skin epidemic

If men were so toxic, selling them razors probably wasn’t a good idea

There was outrage earlier this week at a new ad published by the razor brand Gillette. Through a series of inspirational scenes, they have sought to reframe their famous slogan – The best a man can get – around the #metoo conversation and the problem of toxic masculinity. In lieu of a machismo culture that encouraged sexism, bullying, and habitual violence, Gillette “believe in the best of men” and are calling them “to say the right thing and act the right way”.

What’s not to like? As a Christian ethicist, I wholeheartedly agree that the boys watching our conduct today will be the men of tomorrow. That’s not insight. That’s how time works. Still, the point is well taken. It’s in the Bible, after all. Proverbs recommends that we “Train up a child in the right way; and when old, they will not stray.” The problem of the male gaze is real, and seeking to raise young men who exercise self-control in their vision is a goal everyone can support. Bullying is rife throughout society, and one of the only approaches that has any hope of addressing that is to inculcate a strong peaceableness in our young men.

I don’t buy Gillette products and unless their newly woke razors suddenly become faster and easier than my trusted old Philips Philishave, I won’t be starting. But on the surface of things there is nothing to object to in this message.

Yet objections have proliferated.

It seems that the ad has caused a great disturbance in some sections of the male population. In all the usual conservative quarters of the never-ending Culture Wars, opinion pieces proliferate arguing that what we need is not more socially conscious grooming products, but more of the traditional masculinity which the ad seems to decry. A prominent Irish conservative voice strangely lamented on Twitter that the ad was “telling men to be better people.”

I didn’t think I’d ever have to dispute this with publicly renowned Catholics, but encouraging men to be better people is definitely something Christianity supports.

Predictably, the more “progressive” side of the Culture Wars responded and on the websites associated with wokeness you will find pieces decrying the decriers. Nature’s miraculously complex cycle of internet outrage continues! Marvel at the balance between the yin of performative conservatism and the yang of expressivist liberalism!

A second pass over this terrain

It is tempting, therefore, to dismiss this conversation as a distraction. And from a certain point, if we have any feelings beyond, “Huh, it’s true that men shouldn’t be bullies or sexists,” then a willingness to take the opportunity to make some jokes is probably the best approach. The internet generated the outrage, but also thankfully generated the comedy. Examples of witty responses abound.

But at this risk of overthinking, I actually reckon it is worthwhile reflecting on what this ad means. Gillette is a brand of Proctor and Gamble, one of the largest corporations in the world with hundreds of billions of revenue each year and over a hundred thousand employees. The marketing decisions made about Gillette are not primarily determined by a concern for the well-being of society, but the well-being of shareholders. This truism needs to be repeated because it is the baseline reality that motivates the creation of this ad. They have made a calculation that this ad and the flurry of attention it has generated will increase sales and increase profits and therefore increase shareholder value.

Now a pragmatist response to that would say, “This is true, but so what? In our media environment that is so filled with sexist claptrap, they have chosen to promote a positive message, and even if their basic motivation is self-interested profit, shouldn’t we be glad that it isn’t yet another bikini clad cohort celebrating the smooth chin of some Hollywood hunk?” A position like that seems to be encapsulated by the classic Mitchell and Webb sketch:

But this argument doesn’t hold. The apparent reasonableness of such a position falls to pieces when we take seriously how our culture of consumption is not morally neutral. Before everything else, the ad promotes a way of life driven by the relentless need to increase sales and profit and productivity. That is what this ad is for. Opposing toxic masculinity is a method by which to promote toxic capitalism.

This, then, is a level of critique that the popular outrage and acclaim consistently miss. To be enraged or brought to tears by the message but to avoid the medium is to get caught in a self-defeating loop. Those angry at Gillette are only strengthening the brand’s communication strategy. Those delighted by Gillette are only fuelling a culture of consumption that acts against the kind of virtue that they wish to see more commonplace among men.

The medium is the message and the Gillette ad is interesting because it is unusually transparent in displaying how neoliberal capitalism seeks to form us as moral agents who see our lives in terms of the things we buy and the services we consume. Our allegiances to brands are always moral connections, it is just that their messages are usually more savvy, more subtle, and therefore all the more effective. Even though you know fast food is bad for you, you treat yourself to a cheeky Big Mac every now and again because the “I’m loving it” jingle is embedded deep in your brain. You are an Apple person, not a PC person, because you think differently. You don’t just have a pair of Nike because the colour caught your eye but because you are someone, deep down, who just does it, and more, you agree that “we have to believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything”.

What is happening when adverts become sermons is that the adverts are asking you to put your trust in the brands. And the Gillette ad is significant because in its very explicit moralising, it reveals how every ad is also a sermon. The good news of capitalism is reinforced with every billboard and TV segment, every Facebook sidebar notice and every piece of skillful product placement. “Choice is primal”, “More is better”, “If you stop progressing, you start regressing” are some of the central doctrines that are hammered home without pause as we sit in traffic, as flick between stations, and as we log in to check our work email.

Formed by 5,000 sermons a day

The social crusading of brands may have some spin-off benefits for social justice, but that is not clearly evident. What is clear is that when a brand engages in this kind of social justice rhetoric, it is an attempt to recruit you as a customer, not a comrade. The fellowship of consumerism is ultimately driven by profit, not progress.

This phenomenon is famously discussed by the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. He reflects on his regular visits to Starbucks, where he was greeted by another transparently evangelising message: “It’s not just what you’re buying, it’s what you’re buying into.” The overpriced, underwhelming coffee is selling you more than a caffeine hit. It is giving you a canvas on which to paint for the world a portrait of yourself as someone concerned with the environment, social responsibility, and cosmopolitanism. The point of such marketing campaigns, for Zizek, is that “in buying them, we are not merely buying and consuming, we are simultaneously doing something meaningful, showing our capacity for care and our global awareness, participating in a collective project” (Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 54).

Estimates suggest we are exposed to as many as 5,000 ads a day. Each one represents a stimulus towards capitalist faithfulness. We live, allegedly, in an age of scepticism when people find belief harder to come by. Such opinions hold only as long as we remain blinkered to the trust that we place in the symbols we carry in our wallets and the sacraments we practice at the cash tills. In a neoliberal age, we would fully expect our moral formation to be outsourced to competitive corporations. They are, after all, efficient and trustworthy! This is our shared religion – where the corporate priests posture as warriors for justice when they are really only in the battle for profits and where we the faithful posture against capitalism while revelling in its luxuries.

This, then, is the takeaway: Which ever razors you choose to consume, which ever side of the Culture War you decide to support, the key thing is to buy more blades.