What voice should a brand have?

Corporations, despite continuing to not be people, have a lot of opinions. Usually that opinion is “buy our stuff,” but sometimes they try to sell us something deeper, something better. Gilette’s Super Bowl ad is the latest example of this, with a #MeToo era-themed comment on toxic masculinity and the harmful nature of the “boys will be boys” mindset.

The ad begins with men catcalling women, laughing at sexist jokes, and being forced to “toughen up” in response to bullying, while the actions, both those that harm others and those that cause them harm, are brushed off as “typical” male behaviour, locker room talk. Then the focus shifts, to strong fathers guiding their sons (and daughters) to resolve conflict, promote self-esteem, and learn how to “be a man,” in the best sense.

Unsurprisingly, a certain subset of men (you can guess which one) has taken issue with the idea that it might not be cool for them to do and say whatever they want, whenever they want, without consequence or critique, and have decided to boycott Gillette for daring to suggest that men have the capability to evolve beyond the caveman age.

However, there are those who would normally agree with the commercial’s message who also have a problem with the ad. Kaitlyn Tiffany and Sarah Banet-Weiser for Vox’s The Goods call it “commodity activism,” in which a brand acts “woke” or politically aware in order to hawk their product. While there are obviously brands that practice what they preach and show a strong commitment to the ideals they espouse (outdoor brands like REI and Patagonia promoting conservation efforts come to mind, as does Ben & Jerry’s history of supporting progressive causes), there are plenty of others that use activism only as much as it boosts their bank accounts.

Last year, clothing brand Feminist Apparel shut down after it came to light that their male CEO had a history of harassing and abusing women. Nike has historically been critcised by activists as the corporate face of sweatshop labour, but raked in billions last year when they made Colin Kaepernick their new face in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Gillette itself is responsible for the Venus brand which not only exemplifies the “pink tax” in which women’s products, almost always the same sickeningly vibrant shade of pink pink, cost more than similar items marketed towards men, but also features the sexist “I’m your goddess” ad campaign that focuses on being soft and attractive rather than strong and resilient. In some ways, their previous advertisements play into the exact mentality that this recent ad is positioned against.

And yet I still think that, for the most part, “woke advertising,” when done well (eg not that Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad) leads to a net good. The ubiquity of advertising is such that it reaches an audience who may not otherwise be seeking out progressive content. Maybe folks who have always been Gillette customers or who love Super Bowl commercials but have never given much thought about toxic masculinity are going to see and think and hopefully speak about it for the first time.

Even if the reason is financial, the effect has a broader result—would Dove or Aerie showcase as much body diversity in their campaigns if it didn’t sell? Maybe not, but it means mainstream normalisation of people with different skin colours, sizes, and abilities in media. In the beauty world, brands have been quick to follow the lead of Fenty’s 40-shade foundation launch not only in advertising but also in the size of the shade range itself. Sure, it’s because the Rihanna-owned brand is the hottest thing in the industry right now, but it also means that there are finally an array of widely-available options for people who aren’t a medium-tone of white.

That doesn’t mean that these brands and their marketing campaigns should be immune from criticism, especially when the ideals they espouse in their ads aren’t reflected in their company’s actions. But we as consumers have always known we’ve wanted more than just the same over-airbrushed models acting out the same tired gender roles. So if brands are ready to listen, then I’m willing to watch.

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