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Face Value

Gillette has tried to make profits from selling social good. But where marketing and politics mingle, there lies danger, warns Peter Stockland.

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Topics: Business, Social Architecture, Money
Face Value January 18, 2019  |  By Peter Stockland
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It’s tempting to take the week’s “controversy” over the Gillette shaving company’s new advertising campaign at something less than face value.

For starters, controversy itself is no longer the conversational cutting edge it once was. In this era of fake-versus-false news, universal short attention span theatre, and ludicrous overstatement as the entry price for even being noticed, the mere prospect of people jaw-boning with each other in some hyper-overreactive way often barely merits a second look.

That’s doubly true when the source of the purported controversy is some corporate behemoth funding a mega-million dollars advertising campaign explicitly to draw attention to its product. If a company such as Gillette can manipulate the non-Amish/anti-hipster males of North America into dragging its razor blades across their faces every morning, would it necessarily be a cut above manipulating them into a manufactured social media spit fight? Call me Mr. Cynical, but au contraire. It’s exactly what they’d love to do, and thanks for all the free publicity, lads.

Marketing experts point out, after all, that Gillette has lost about 20 per cent of its market share in recent years to upstart discount razor companies, especially those that offer the soft soap selling feature of automatic at-home delivery. Where once the brand controlled 70 per cent of the facial scraping market, it’s now down to about 50 per cent. That’s more than incentive enough to get people yakking about your product as a prelude to having them believe they’ve made a conscious decision to buy it again.

As those who watched the brilliant Mad Men series learned in the first show of the first season, advertising stopped almost 60 years ago being about directly selling products. It became about selling the experience of the product. Then it began about selling the appropriate feelings for you to have about the product. Not for nothing did Coke try to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony a generation ago – right in the midst of its bitter “cola market share war” with Pepsi.

Counter-intuitively, though, the very prevalence of such hidden persuasions is what makes the Gillette “controversy” one of those rare occasions when serious debate is warranted about what the munchkins of Madison Avenue are trying to get us to think and do. With its advertising campaign, the company has stepped what would seem to be boldly into the socio-political minefields of #MeToo, bullying, spousal abuse, and male self-absorption.

Its spots make what might, using the word broadly and charitably, an argument, that real men take “no” for an answer – and, indeed, have the decency to always ask and listen. Real men certainly don’t physically assault their partners, but they don’t play psychological power games, either. Real men don’t, by word or example, teach their children, particularly their sons, that the best a man can get is whatever he can get away with.

What possible objection could there be to any of that? Well, there are at least two that have at least a measure of legitimacy, even if they fail as complete arguments. The first, and most blunt, is to question what on earth a private sector for profit uber capitalist shaving company is doing telling its (increasingly former) customers how to behave. It doesn’t require being the sharpest knife in the drawer to grasp that Gillette’s business is making the best shaving products it can provide for the money, and as a complement, to maximize shareholder value. Point finale.

Even those who would counter that profiting from making and selling goods entails a responsibility to promote social goods can see how the second objection arises by digging deeper into the first. It is this: how far down that line do we go before we are within a whisker of letting the corporate determine the political?  My Cardus colleague Ray Pennings has warned for several years about the dangers of political parties becoming nothing more than electoral marketing machines. It can be argued that the more horrifying aspects of Donald Trump’s election are a backlash against that exact phenomenon.

What happens – ye! Gods! – when the politics by marketing machine is indistinguishable from marketing machine by politics?

We do not need to look too far back in history to know without controversy that is not a circumstance we want to face. If the debate Gillette has touched off even scratches that surface, then, it will have been worthwhile.


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