The row over Gillette’s divisive ad is exactly why we need to keep talking

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Pernicious Piers Morgan was at it again this week on Good Morning Britain, stirring up controversy for the sake of it. At least, I assume he was doing it for the sake of it – or rather, for Twitter replies and RTs, the poor needy lamb – because I can’t fathom how a father of three boys and a girl would spout such twaddle otherwise.

I’m referring to the row over the new Gillette advert, which Morgan relished getting stuck into the other day. If you’ve not seen the ad, watch it below or here.

The advert is a bold, positive step and it made me quite emotional. Yet Piers referred to it as ‘cynical virtue-signalling’ and argued that it implies that all men are bad people.

And many agree with him. The clip has been one of the most disliked on YouTube, with almost 400,000 ‘thumbs down’ at the time of writing this, and ad industry experts writing it off as an unprecedented marketing fail.

Are those 400,000 all men? If I was a man, would I take offence to the references to #MeToo, feel that I was being targeted unfairly and buy some Wilkinson Sword instead? I doubt it, and I don’t think the men I know will change their razor-buying habits because of an ad that perhaps doesn’t quite manage to accurately portray all of the finer complexities of thousands of years of gender politics in 60 seconds.

The ‘cynical virtue-signalling’ part of the argument is understandable, to an extent. Here come Gillette going way, way off brand in order to be seen doing the right thing. Out with the competitive sportsmen and the suave alpha chaps in suits and in with some heavy political statements and an instruction for men to call other men out on their crap behaviour. Directed by a WOMAN, NO LESS!

Yet if it wasn’t Gillette it would have eventually have been another traditionally masculine brand, and if brands don’t address such topics, they’re criticised anyway.

And yes, it’s a big departure from the old Gillette ads. So it’s large-scale cynical virtue-signalling, and recruiting female director Kim Gehrig scales it up even further.

But it needed to be a big departure, didn’t it? As the ad refers, the status quo is in desperate need of being shaken up.

My son isn’t yet two; I know it’s a bit premature to be worrying about how he’ll get through his teenage years and his twenties. Yet parental concern isn’t always rational, is it? So I’ll admit that I’ve already fretted about his emotional wellbeing, probably much more so than if he was a girl.

Will he be a boy who is close to his mum, and get bullied because of it? Will he have a group of friends who tell each other how they’re feeling, and know that it’s OK to admit when things are a bit rubbish and that it’s a much better solution than bottling everything up?

There were two other stories I noticed in the media this last week, not including this particular sharp-edged debate, that alarmed me in regard to young men and masculinity and the mess we’ve found ourselves in.

The first was Andy Murray’s imminent retirement. When Murray tearfully made the announcement that his troublesome hip would likely put him out of action for good, everyone was chomping at the bit to praise his skill, his humour and his feminism. I’m a Murray fan for all of those reasons but surely it’s a poor state of affairs that still, in 2019, it is such a big deal for a sportsman to be a feminist. And yes, one feminist sportsman is better than none, and hopefully he’s paving the way for the next generation, but progress is painfully slow.  

The second story I noticed was the front page of my local newspaper the other day, featuring the faces of at least 10 young men who had taken their own lives in recent weeks.

It’s jarring and upsetting to go from slagging off Piers Morgan to discussing the virtues of Andy Murray to highlighting increasing rates of young male suicide.

Yet for Piers to glibly dismiss the Gillette ad and to continue to bang the drum to ‘let boys be boys’ is to ignore the fact that there is confusion for many over what that means nowadays; not least for young men. Times have changed, roles have changed, outdated stereotypes exist alongside mixed messages: ‘man up’, ‘act like a man’, ‘it’s OK to talk about your feelings now, actually’ – and it needs addressing. A TV ad flogging razors – or not, as some argue the outcome may be – isn’t going to solve everything but it’s a start.

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About Laura O'Donnell

Laura is mum to Ted and partner of Graham Norton (yes really, and no, not that one). Laura left a glamorous life working in PR – first in London, then Sydney, Australia – to return to her less glamorous hometown of Hull, Yorkshire. She set up a PR consultancy and writes a column in Hull Daily Mail, which used to be about culture and going out; it’s now about culture and attempting a social life with a sleep-averse one-year old. Laura blogs at Only Teethin’, loves good guitar pop music and can be bought with donuts. Find her on Instagram @TheLauraOD.

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1 Comment

  1. 18 January 2019 / 08:06

    I have been watching this debate with interest this week – although it doesn’t appear to be much of ”debate’ as every male friend I have spoken to about this either directly or via social media agrees that the advert is necessary and shows fathers teaching their sons good manners and ‘who wouldn’t want that?”

    It seems that the men who are secure in themselves are not offended by the ad. And why should they be? They know they haven’t done anything to be ashamed of. I think if your conscience is clean then you will only see this advert as a positive step.

    The fact is that historically, women have found themselves on the receiving end of sexist barbs, unwanted advances, assumptions as to their intelligence, I know I have personally. We have grown up learning to cover our drinks in bars so we are not ‘roofied’ and learned to get in to the back seat of taxi cabs, not sit up front with the driver so we don’t have to deal with the ‘accidentally on purpose knee stroke’ when the driver changes gears. Men don’t have to think like this. It was ingrained in our culture. We didn’t question it, didn’t make a fuss. It is ‘just the way things were’.

    Piers Morgan feels under attack by this advert, his masculinity and his behaviours put under a microscope. As they should be – welcome to what women have dealt with all their lives Piers! I’m not saying that Piers Morgan has ever done anything like the behaviours in the first 40 seconds of the ad. In fact Piers seems to treat all his interviewees on his TV show the same, regardless of race or sex in that he expects everyone to be accountable and responsible for themselves and I applaud this.

    However Piers is a white, middle class, heterosexual male.

    How can he possibly understand what it feels like to have your opinions discounted because you are a woman? Whether he likes it or not he has all his life enjoyed male privilege. Benefitted from it. He’s obviously worked very hard too, that isn’t in question, but he hasn’t had to fight double the battle to achieve the same goal the way a white woman has had to. If he was a black woman it’d be double the battle to achieve half of the same goal.

    What Gillette has done is to create an advert not to criticise males but to show the way forward for all of us. Children learn by mirroring what adults do and they do the same. This advert teaches us to be mindful of our actions as our children are watching and we need to be a good example. This advert is not going to stop all patronising or boorish behaviour. But it says very clearly that this kind of attitude is ‘not cool’, and today’s children will take note. In 20 years time, when society looks back on this advert, I hope that they will be amazed, not only at how ‘quaint’ it all was ‘back in 2019’ but at how far they / we as a society have come.