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Marketing and Comms
‘We Believe’:
Communicators Weigh In on P&G’s Controversial New Ad

We reached out to communication leaders in the SB community for their take on P&G’s spotlight on toxic masculinity.

By now, you've likely seen or at least heard about "We Believe" — the first ad from Gillette’s new campaign — which calls on men everywhere to help put an end to toxic masculinity.

Since its release on Monday, the digital world has collectively exploded in a truly mixed torrent of reactions; as of press time, the ad has more than 16 million views, 416k likes and 827k dislikes on YouTube, with social media posts ranging from praise to abuse and outrage — the majority tend toward the latter, as the ad left some of its target audience, men, feeling shamed and vilified. But opinions definitely aren’t split across gender lines; one male Facebook user, a middle school teacher. commented: “Thank you for being brave enough to start this conversation. The wheels of progress turn slow, but turn they must.”

Meanwhile, on the industry front, The Guardian’s Max Benwell offered in response a hilarious vision of four potential “woke” products/brand messages that could pick up Gillette’s intended torch; while columnist and critic Mark Ritson went so far as to dub it “the year’s worst marketing move.” But is it?

It’s still early in the age of brands taking bold stands to support their values, but stellar recent examples from companies such as Airbnb, Ben & Jerry’s, Nike and Patagonia — and other notable campaigns from Gillette parent company, Procter & Gamble (P&G), including Always’ “Like a Girl” and Pantene’s “Strong Is Beautiful” — along with earlier missteps from companies such as Audi and Starbucks, offer important insights on striking the right balance.

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We reached out to communication leaders throughout the Sustainable Brands community for their take on P&G’s latest controversial stand.

“The commercial is quite moving — I'm a mom; I got a little misty-eyed. But what really struck me was the sheer honesty of the statement on their website, their pledge to be better, and the fact that it sidestepped any product placement,” said Liz Courtney, Business Development Manager at BBMG. “They recognize that their position as a brand that represents masculinity comes with a responsibility to shape the narrative in culture. And I find that stance very believable and authentic, even if there was a certain measure of damage prevention that went into the calculation to put the message out there.

“They had to know they would piss off the segment of the population who already feels attacked and betrayed by the #MeToo movement, but I'm sure they also knew that staying silent would only lead to their brand losing relevance for consumers who want brands to take a stand on issues that are material to their business,” Courtney added. “Gillette is practically synonymous with masculinity; better to define what masculinity means for the brand, rather than allow people to make their own assumptions.”

Carol Cone, CEO of The Purpose Collaborative, said the brand needed to go further.

“I commend Gillette and Procter & Gamble, who want to use their brands for good; as Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of P&G, has said: ‘Media companies can and should have a purpose — identifying areas where the company can have a voice that makes a difference while building the business.’ [But] reaction to the campaign is a big, flashing red light to other marketers who attempt to navigate social activism.

“Talk and controversy can spark change, but Gillette should do more if it truly wants to drive behavior change related to toxic masculinity. How will the brand's provocation be sustained through actions to create real impact?” Cone asked. “Gillette committed $3 million over three years to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGCA). That’s commendable, but it’s a drop in the bucket, and doesn't seem strategic enough to support impactful programming directed at creating change. Where is the $10+ million XPRIZE-type challenge to uncover new solutions and drive new behaviors?

“Let’s unite creatives and ad strategists with social purpose experts — all on equal footing regarding strategy and budgets — to create thoughtful, insights-driven and sustainable programs that can become new cultural touchpoints.”

Heidi Dangelmaier, designer, quantum physicist and founder of Girl Approved — an organization of market-growth visionaries who are championing the future of consumerism and culture on behalf of women said she was “devastated” by the ad, and offered a bit of empathy for men today: “On behalf of Gen Z daughters, I would like to do a shout-out to the fathers of the world — [many] dads break their backs day in and day out to provide for us, and that commitment deserves respect. And, to be really honest here, ‘Mom’ isn't perfect, either!

“I have spent 12 years now with over 3,000 Gen Z students, getting to the causal roots of why our culture is in crisis — it is not people we need to blame; it is data models of people that are broken,” she asserted. “These models got coded into cultural norms and they hurt everyone and everything. Because of these broken models, women and men are out of balance, and hurt each other today. To the decision-makers in marketing — male blame, shame and resentment has got to stop; start focusing on how to correct your research, design and forecasting tools, and not how to fix people.”

“Regardless of the stance, we see the campaign as being strongly executed. Gillette acted boldly — it decided to tackle a sensitive and controversial topic, and lead the way in starting a conversation for how to drive change,” said Nathan Sanfaçon, Marketing Coordinator and Strategist at thinkPARALLAX. “Gillette also remained aligned with its parent company’s purpose; this was far from an attempt to bandwagon on a hot topic. P&G conducted research on the topic, surveying more than 1,000 US men and women; secured partnerships with nonprofits such as the BGCA; and made a three-year commitment to support other nonprofits that are working ‘to help men of all ages achieve their personal best.’

“[But] it should be called out here that while the [ad] was executed well, overall, it does not negate the accompanying risk-versus-reward dilemma,” he pointed out. “Regardless of how controversial or groundbreaking the topic a brand wishes to address, thoughtful consideration must be made regarding the long-term outcome and value to stakeholders. That said, going forward Gillette will need to continually reinforce, defend, and communicate to its audiences why it took this stance and how it relates back to its values and mission.”

"When it comes to the modern, male consumer, there is a clear purpose opportunity for brands to seize. [But] when tackling complex social issues, starting with nuanced insight into the issue and the people it involves is a vital first step," points out Becky Willan, Managing Director of UK brand purpose agency Given. "Out of a deeper understanding should emerge greater clarity around which aspect of the issue a brand can credibly (or even uniquely) address. There is no doubt P&G will have done their research, but they might have had less controversy if they had delivered a more targeted piece. The approach Lynx took with the 2017 campaign ‘Is it ok for guys to…’ ensured that it explored issues with its audience in accessible, bite-sized chunks, targeting a very specific and ring-fenced issue, rather than moralising, blaming or prescribing ‘best practice’ in how to be a young man.

"The second big issue is format. Unlike the Nike ‘Just Do It’ campaign, which set out to engage a specific group at the risk of alienating another, it is not clear who this is designed to engage or motivate. What would be interesting is to understand the segmentation that P&G were using and whether this was a calculated risk based on changing demographics or size of their customer segments. Are they looking at a new growth segment in their audience? Are they trying to engage more women with the brand? It would be interesting to know who this piece was designed to appeal to and what they wanted to achieve strategically, other than signalling a change in tact, and tagline.

"However, the third issue with the ad — and this is the big one — is the lack of substance," Willan added. "Gillette are donating a million dollars a year to various charities, which is great, but a drop in the ocean compared to their annual profits and more importantly, an ‘outsourcing’ of responsibility for change. Rather than highlighting the problem and asking men to ‘be better,’ if Gillette had been able to say what they were doing to lead by example; how they were looking at this issue across their business — from gender pay gap to paternity leave — it might feel more credible.

"Now the ad has launched, is the idea of eradicating toxic masculinity baked into their business strategy? This, we are told, is coming down the line, but it is critical when treading the brand purpose tightrope, that you can demonstrate the substance of your ideal before you start communicating it."

As We First founder and CEO Simon Mainwaring added, while “there is definitely a need to address the excesses of toxic masculinity that diminishes the lives of both men and women, special sensitivity needed to be shown by the brand, given its past advertising and dominance of such a core male product category.

“The danger here is that the brand is speaking about two categories of men — those who practice the more evolved masculinity, and those who don't. In my opinion, the brand should not have positioned itself as the arbiter of these two groups, but rather celebrated the virtues of healthier masculinity. In short, I think the commercial has launched a critical debate but they made a misstep in terms of the tone of execution.”

P&G is an active and engaged member of the SB community that continues to lead positive changes in a variety of areas, so we applaud the intention behind the “We Believe” message. But ultimately, this particular creative execution runs the risk of creating defensiveness and disengagement, as with any communication that insinuates blame, which can make us unreceptive to our own capacity for change.

So, how can we inspire the necessary cultural shifts and behavior change around glaring social issues such as toxic masculinity — when society is clearly yearning for more meaningful connections — and provide the tools to get there?

This is something our community as a whole — including P&G — is working together to learn, through our new #BrandsforGood initiative. Join us in June at SB’19 Detroit, at which we will share lessons learned from this campaign; along with new ethnographic, qualitative and quantitative research on the topic, and a marketers’ toolkit based on it.