Millennials Stare Into the Void, and Gillette Stares Back

Can marketers rebrand capitalism for young Americans?

A young man shaves while looking in the mirror
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On Monday, the men’s shaving brand Gillette released a new commercial and social-responsibility initiative, and the internet had some feedback. The ad, which shifts Gillette’s longtime tagline from “The Best a Man Can Get” to “The Best Men Can Be,” is intended to mark the slogan’s 30th anniversary and reflect on the masculine ideals the razor purveyor has endorsed in the past and will demonstrate going forward.* It also promises million-dollar donations to nonprofits with related goals over the next three years, starting with the Boys & Girls Club of America.

Reactions were very mixed and very loud, even though the ad itself is pretty moderate and diverse in its depictions of male behavior. It features fictionalized scenes and clips from the news or viral videos. Some of the men depicted bully or sexually harass others, while other men are active parents and healthy conflict-resolvers. The spot’s voice-over ends by reminding viewers that what they do is important, because it sets an example for the next generation.

The campaign itself isn’t new—a related ad featuring the disabled NFL player Shaquem Griffin has been on the air for much of football season—but the debut of this new chapter sparked outrage among many conservatives online, who characterized the criticisms of masculine socialization as another round in what they see as a prolonged cultural attack on American men. One Twitter user threw his Gillette razor in the toilet, later clarifying that he did not flush. (His displeasure at the ad appeared to be genuine, even if his commitment to clogging his toilet was not.)

Perhaps because people love any prompt to argue on the internet, many progressives responded with support for Gillette’s message—even if it was sometimes tinged with skepticism—and a viral ad was born. Gillette may not have anticipated exactly this magnitude of reaction, but in stepping into what many Millennials see as a leadership void left by ineffective government and cultural leaders, it’s become the latest example of exactly what many marketers think brands have to do to communicate with the next generation of shoppers.

“The intention was not to be political at all,” according to Pankaj Bhalla, the North American brand director for Gillette. While it’s unclear whether it’s even possible to take on a social issue without being political in the current American cultural climate, Bhalla thinks brands feel pressure from Millennial and Gen Z shoppers to step beyond the bounds of straightforward consumer-product marketing. “I think it is important to stand for more than the product’s benefit that you provide, and I think that’s the expectation of our younger audiences,” he says.

It’s too early to know if Gillette’s campaign will pay dividends for the brand, but social-responsibility marketing is a method with a considerable history, dotted with notable success stories. Most famously, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty kicked off years of viral ads and dozens of imitators by explicating the ways that personal-care marketing capitalizes on women’s insecurities. More recently, Nike’s Just Do It campaign gained broad attention by casting the NFL social-justice pariah Colin Kaepernick as its most prominent face.

Although skeptics point out that these initiatives often offer consumers few solutions to social problems beyond buying a company’s products, it seems like younger shoppers do want brands to weigh in on larger issues. According to a recent survey by the market-research firm Sprout Social, 66 percent of American consumers want companies to take public stands on social and political problems. The researchers ultimately concluded that doing so offered brands greater reward than it did risk, even though gaffes are possible. (Remember that Pepsi ad in which Kendall Jenner made peace between protesters and police by offering one officer a beverage?)

So what’s motivating teens and young adults to look to brands for moral leadership? “As trust goes down in institutions, people are looking for somebody to step up to the plate,” says Peggy Simcic Brønn, a professor of communication and culture at the Norwegian Business School in Oslo who has tracked social-responsibility marketing for more than two decades. “NGOs and governmental institutions, which we depend on to address bad things, they’re not doing it. So who’s left to do it? That’s business.”

Tülin Erdem, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, also sees Millennial angst as part of the equation. “Commercial life is so much a part of the cultural landscape, compared to 20 to 30 years ago,” she says. “Given that fact, and given that Millennials are looking for meaning, if you put the two together, I think that’s why we’re seeing [these ads].” Young people are staring into the void—and into an economic climate custom-made to break their back. What stares back is consumer choice, however ineffective. Marketers, it seems, have simply noticed the opportunity to meet the expectations that go along with that.

That doesn’t mean everyone loves the approach: Taking sides requires companies to alienate some tradition-minded customers, who are often older and more conservative, as seemed to be the case with Gillette’s backlash. But that’s okay, according to Brønn. Building brand loyalty in young people is very important for the long-term health of a company, and Gillette in particular has recently been challenged from youth-focused upstarts like Dollar Shave Club.

But beyond any single brand’s positioning, what these marketing efforts help do is rebrand capitalism in a time when young people are questioning its efficacy. “If we want the world to survive, we have to think about the humans in it, not just selling products and making money,” says Brønn. She’s hopeful these marketing efforts are an indication that brands are sincere in their desire to be better global citizens.

Gillette’s parent company, Procter & Gamble, has so far declined to pull the brand’s ads (and, by extension, its financial support) from Fox News, a channel where hosts often advocate the kind of old-school ideas Gillette’s new campaign portends to discourage. At the very least, the company’s desire to acquire Millennial market share seems very sincere.

* A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the new tagline marked the brand’s 30th anniversary. We regret the error.

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