The Gillette ad moved me. When the father runs from his barbecue to stop the boy getting bullied, I thought of my dad, who always greets me with a hug and says he loves me at the end of every call. The ad effectively illustrates the link between everyday sexism and systemic abuse. It shows ways cisgender men like me can make the world a little better for people who don’t have the unjust advantages I do. Above all, it’s a welcome sign that particular modes of toxic masculinity are becoming less socially acceptable.
But as progressive as the ad may be, it also poses questions. For instance, will the company that made this commercial do anything to address the pay gap between its boy child wage slaves and girl child wage slaves?
It’s 2019, and we’re not näive. We all know Gillette’s agenda is to sell razors. We all know campaigns like this are designed to harness the news cycle and multiply exposure beyond initial marketing budgets. But when the cause is urgent and the message on point, why not give Gillette the free ad space it wants? When good news seems so rare, it’s tempting to put our scepticism on the backburner and look a little more fondly on the Mach3® Turbo than we did before.
And why shouldn’t we? As people who don’t have my privilege are painfully reminded every day, gender-based exploitation is deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society. Our culture bolsters chauvinism and machismo in pernicious and deadly ways, and the consequences for people of all genders are dire. Any message that nips at the roots of the patriarchy is a positive development, especially when it’s delivered to men in ways that men will listen. As I’ve gotten older, my experience of becoming a bit less of a dick has involved a gradual chipping away of harmful norms I’d internalised. Little things like overly earnest shaving commercials actually can make a difference.
But if this is a step forward, it wasn’t won by Gillette. It was achieved by generations of feminists who managed to push our culture to this tipping point. Women and gender diverse people have fought so tirelessly for justice and liberation that even a bunch of corporate hacks have decided to jump on board. We shouldn’t diminish their victory by hanging a portrait of a Fusion ProGlide between Angela Davis and the Pankhursts.
Because as much as the ad’s narrator insists that ‘Gillette believes in the best a man can be,’ Gillette doesn’t believe in anything except capital accumulation. If Gillette’s market research had shown there was more money in appealing to MRAs, PUAs, red-pillers, incels, Jordan Petersonians or any other woman-hating cybercult, then that is precisely what Gillette’s latest ad would have done.
Indeed, Gillette has long history of profiting off patriarchy. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Rachel Jacobs points out that ‘In 1915 Gillette realised it could double its profits by getting women to shave, but to do that it would have to convince women that underarm hair was disgraceful’ and that ‘Gillette is owned by Procter & Gamble, which also makes skin whitening and lightening creams, mass-marketed in Asia and the Middle East.’
And that’s just a few of Procter and Gamble’s decidedly unwoke practices. It owns cosmetic brands like Pantene and Olay, which push products by strategically undermining women’s self esteem. It owns multinational placebo-merchant Swisse, the 21st century of equivalent of a Victorian-era grifter flogging elixirs from a crate. And it remains one of the world’s biggest producers of disposable waste, feeding a global environmental crisis which, like most crises, will disproportionately affect people who aren’t cisgender men.
Then there are the slaves. In 2016, Amnesty International reported on Wilmar, one of Proctor and Gamble’s palm oil suppliers in South East Asia. Palm oil production dispossesses indigenous communities, destroys irreplaceable rainforests and is killing the last Orang Utans. But Amnesty found that Proctor and Gamble’s contractor is also responsible for obscene violations of human rights:
• Women forced to work long hours under the threat of having their pay cut, paid below minimum wage – earning as little as US$2.50 a day in extreme cases – and kept in insecure employment without pensions or health insurance,
• Children as young as eight doing hazardous, hard physical work, sometimes dropping out of school to help their parents on the plantation,
• Workers suffering severe injuries from paraquat, an acutely toxic chemical still used in the plantations despite being banned in the EU and by Wilmar itself
The Gillette ad is part of a new, sophisticated wave of corporate whitewashing, seen last year in Nike’s powerful endorsement of anti-racist activist Colin Kaepernick. As meaningful as these messages may be, they are no more sincere than Kendell’s Jenner’s infamous Pepsi protest. Banks have no place in pride marches. McDonalds, a company that has done untold damage to children’s health, deserves no credit for raising money for sick kids one day a year. And co-opting an urgent social struggle to sell shoes does not absolve Nike of pioneering the modern sweatshop.
A corporation cannot be absolved, because it is not a moral agent. It is a machine of exploitation. There are no good corporations. There are no good ads. There are ads that do good incidentally in the pursuit of profit; and there are effective ads. But human beings won’t be free until we don’t have ads at all.
…a new trend has emerged amongst the progressive left. Instead of seeing the culture industry as an enemy to be confronted and defeated (along with the rest of the ideological state apparatus), the culture industry is viewed as a battleground where one can win social reforms through changing the composition of the media class. In this view, the aesthetic construction and public composition of the culture industry are in fact a measure of social progress (rather than being an aspect of recuperation by the ruling class).
By abandoning a radical critique of the culture industry in exchange for a liberal compromise with establishment culture, these progressives have left themselves open to being easily recuperated and systematically de-fanged.
If stanning and cancelling particular cultural artefacts is fraught, then imagining that the revolution might be advertised is an utter surrender to capital. Marketing is nothing more or less than professional manipulation. It is the leveraging of psychological insight to make us do or buy things we wouldn’t otherwise do or buy. The fact that we’re resigned to its ubiquity does not make it less obscene. Rewarding woker-than-usual commercials isn’t even trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools – it’s just congratulating the master because his latest weapon for bleeding us dry happens to have a pink handle.
And, even so, the ad will help. This is a contradiction we have to hold if we are to move forward with clarity. When the hashtags were trending and the thinkpieces flowed, I decided to suffer the Today Show’s segment on the issue. The supernaturally patient Clementine Ford debated the singularly hate-filled Miranda Devine, with the final word going to noted feminist scholar Richard Wilkins. It was a sobering reminder of the reality of mainstream discourse in Australia, where the simple message that male violence and predation aren’t acceptable is still controversial. The fact I can forget that is testament to my privilege.
I hope the Gillette ad will make some people think, and make others a little safer. If it does, that’s a victory worth celebrating. But let’s not get too deeply invested in a culture-war-industrial-complex that devotes more discourse to the political nuances of the Oscars than the stripping of funding from family violence programs. Lets remember to give all the credit to the women and gender diverse people who, in their public and private lives, pushed against the walls of their oppression to make moments like this possible. And lets give no credit at all to companies that reinforce those walls until the moment it’s no longer profitable.