Gilette: best a purpose ad can get?

screen shot 2019-01-18 at 9.26.06 pmGillette’s ‘The Best Men Can Be’ ad drew immediate comparisons with Nike’s Dream Crazy of September, and there are important similarities but also differences. Let’s start with the similarities:

  • Societal cause: both Nike and Gillette identified an important and controversial societal cause and believed it was best for a commercial company to promote it. In contrast to most folks over 40, most consumers under 35 want companies and brands to take a stance on such issues (  The times, they are a changing.
  • Temporary backlash, enduring benefits: just like brands breaking up with the NRA after the Parkland shooting (Delta, MetLife, Dick’s Sporting Goods), the backlash is temporary and mostly online – offline sentiment went up ( In the long term, performance did not decline for Delta et al., but it did for the NRA. The benefits of addressing issues important to target customers can be enduring.
  • Products instead of services company: remember Starbucks’ race-related controversy? Service provides like retailers and restaurants can state their support for a cause and train their employees, but can’t really control their behavior. A service is consumed while produced, and if that is with a dash of racism, that is immediately felt by the consumer. In contrast, product companies can fully control quality and have fewer company spokespeople to worry about (e.g. Nike managers and the employees of Nike stores).
  • Serious instead of frivolous treatment: Pepsi’s ad with Kendall Jenner was correctly decried for making light of a very serious issue. To a lesser extent, Starbucks’ attempts to start conversations about race raised eyebrows ( Both Nike and Gillette avoid this trap in their more enduring commitment to the cause.

As to important differences, three stand out:

  • Off-brand: while Nike has long stood for ideas and image, and shows plenty of Nike stuff on famous athletes in the Dream Crazy ads, Gillette has always positioned on product and benefits and does not show any razor in their ad. Therefore, the change to a purpose-driven ad message comes as more of a shock:
  • Feel bad versus feel good: viewer sentiment and arousal is positive for almost the entire Nike’s Dream Crazy ad ( even though there are some differences by gender and age. In contrast, Gillette’s ad engenders negative sentiment for a long time before offering solutions to overcome the negative feeling (the golden rule about using negative feelings in advertising). It is unclear whether that positive turn is too little, too late: while thumbs-up outnumber thumbs-down 7 to 1 for the Nike ad on Youtube, Gillette’s get twice as many thumbs-down than up (January 18, 2019)
  • Generalizing: as much as ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘Boys will be Boys’ describe specific behavior instead of half of humanity, it is easy to confuse them. For one, ‘Boys will be Boys’ is also a common phrase in support the typical rough-and-tumble play boys and men engage in, and to induce more free play into the sitting-still school day: ( Note that the Nike ad is perfectly clear on what and who it supports, but does not put others in a negative light. The row of BBQing dads in the Gillette ad will give some men the feeling they are being unfairly stereotyped. Reflecting this interpretation, one of the YouTube comments reads ‘“Not buying any more. A company making billions from male grooming products trying to shame men for being… men?”

Does this mean the Gilette ad will be ‘this year’s worst marketing move’? Don’t be ridiculous, Mark, we both know better than to underestimate the stupidity of still-to-come marketing campaigns! The jury is out on the long-term effects, as the first results show metrics moving in different directions ( What we do know: the lesson is far more nuanced than ‘find any worthwhile purpose and hitch your brand to it’. As with anything in marketing communication, it is important to ensure both the strategy and the execution make sense for your brand and target customers.

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