At the beginning of 2019, the personal shaving supplies brand, Gillette, released a commercial online titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” It discussed the topics of sexual violence against women by men and called for the male sex to improve as a whole. However, the response to the video was overwhelmingly negative, with dislikes on YouTube reaching a number nearly twice that of likes as of the time of writing and numerous accusations of manipulation in the comments. This paper will explore how the commercial antagonized large sections of the population through a failed application of the cultivation theory, following a worldview that its makers assumed to have been mainstreamed. It stereotyped men negatively, depicted normal behaviors as problematic, and accused every male of being either a sexual harasser or an enabler of such.
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The commercial begins with a list of negative behaviors often associated with men and a play on Gillette’s slogan, “The Best a Man Can Get.” It then shows some examples of problematic events, such as violence, sexual harassment, and objectification of women. It declares that they have been happening for too long and cannot be laughed off (Gillette, 2019). In doing so, the commercial asserts that men either approved of these actions or dismissed them as inconsequential. This claim is repeated throughout the video and can be considered its central point and the issue that Gillette is seeking to address. However, while many of the examples used at this point in the video are real and warrant concern, the commercial’s interpretation of the topic fails to capture the mainstream narrative.
These scenes are followed by what may be the most memorable moment of the commercial and the reason for the stereotyping claims. Two children are fighting in a courtyard, and a long row of men, presumably fathers, stand in front of grills and declare that “boys will be boys.” As Lillard (2017) concludes, children will often play-fight, stopping before inflicting any harm, and the practice is beneficial and necessary. However, Gillette implies that the fathers are incompetent parents who do not stop children from abusing each other, thus promoting violence. This idea is reinforced at the end of the commercial, where a father stops the two, and the narrator states that today’s children will be tomorrow’s men.
The commercial then turns to discuss the #MeToo movement, marking it as a point of change where female victims were finally heard. It uses a variety of clips from television shows to demonstrate the shift in the narrative toward listening to female victims. In doing so, the commercial demonstrates that its authors assumed that these media views of the movement as a positive force were successfully mainstreamed. However, Piacenza (2018) demonstrates survey results that show more than half of every American demographic being at least as concerned about false allegations against men as harassment against women. Despite the positive coverage around #MeToo, public views around it are divided, likely because of high-profile cases that weakened the movement, such as that of Brett Kavanaugh.
The commercial ends with a series of demonstrations of behaviors that Gillette considers to be appropriate for men, which mostly involve stopping others from engaging in problematic behavior. Another well-known moment occurs here that shows the difference in interpretations between the designers of the advertisement and large portions of the public. A man sees an attractive woman pass by and tries to follow her, only to be stopped by a friend. In Gillette’s interpretation, he was likely going to trouble her, but he gives no outward sign of intending to do so. As such, it was as likely, or more so, that he would try to become acquainted with her or arrange a date, actions that are typically viewed as normal and unproblematic.
Overall, the backlash against the commercial was the result of its application of cultivation theory that used inappropriate messages. Gillette operated under the assumption that men were invariably harassers and abusers. The commercial’s viewers understood that and responded negatively when their beliefs were depicted as ones that enable sexual violence. The reason behind the narrative was likely that Gillette misjudged the channels that the public primarily used to receive information. It relied on television and Twitter, neither of which represented a significant portion of its customers, and alienated many as a result. As a result, while its narrative may have appealed to the groups that had the commercial’s points become mainstreamed, it aggravated the portion of the population that had not.
- Gillette. (2019). We believe: The best men can be | Gillette (short film) [Video]. YouTube.
- Lillard, A. S. (2017). Why do the children (pretend) play? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(11), 826-834. Web.
- Piacenza, J. (2018, October 11). A year into #MeToo, public worried about false allegations. Morning Consult.