January 21, 2019

WANG | Gillette is Chasing Profits, Not a Purpose

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YouTube commenter is apoplectic. “Just STOP buying Proctor and Gamble Products.” Another chimes in: “Gillette you just lost a 20 yr. customer.” Over the weekend, Gillette released a short film on YouTube titled “The Best Men Can Be” with a message that was simple, reasonable and needed: men should hold other men accountable for their actions. You’d think something level-headed would get a level-headed response in return. Instead, if you go by YouTube commentators, none seem too pleased.

Oh well. I doubt Gillette (and especially Proctor and Gamble, its parent company, which caters to a large base of consumers who are women) cares much about a subset of toxic keyboard warriors.

The real advertisement is thoughtful and genuine. Despite all the furor and think pieces it has generated, the ad is surprisingly muted from director Kim Gehrig, known for her evocative and layered work during her time as a director of advertisements. Her work also includes other striking videos, from a turn as a director of the music video for Chaka Khan’s percussion-based summer song “Like Sugar” to a short story lamenting the rise of steroids in an increasingly insecure male society. She is the rare director who manages to combine watercolor visuals and kinetic storytelling with aplomb, and it’s why she’s increasingly in demand as an artistic force. Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” combines a splice of Gehrig’s typical leanings: a little bit of thoughtful social commentary, a progression of dizzying scenes that seep into each other, and a flip at the end that keeps your mind in a daze for days. The ad is just another feather in her cap, and another step up in what has been a meteoric rise in the advertising world for her.

But back to the furor: later, after the maelstrom, the company released a statement responding to the criticism — it all felt calculated. And this is where the suits come in: the advertisement, as well meaning as it can be, wouldn’t have been run if the higher up in the company felt it didn’t add something to the bottom line of the company.  It’s a reflection of the current climate, as a  well-spoken, more progressive and new generation demands something different of their companies. In a Cone Communications report, 92 percent of consumers say they have a more positive image of a company when it supports a social issue; meanwhile, Gen Z consumers now see their money as the best way to bring about positive social change.

To miss out on a new wave of consumers would be devastating for businesses. For the companies, an older generation that doesn’t have such staying power doesn’t have much value anymore. In other words, in the eyes of corporations who have to mind rapidly changing demographics and values, they have outlived their usefulness.

When Nike ran its now iconic “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” ad with Colin Kaepernick last September, praise was heaped on the company for the risk it took sticking with a polarizing figure who had even incurred scorn from the president. Except, in a bombshell New York Times report, it was revealed that the company had almost dropped him when he was cut by the 49ers, and top executives at the company decided to sever ties with him because he was no longer marketable.

Thankfully, a sage group of insiders managed to convince them otherwise. They noted that urban youth, a group that the company was desperately trying to tap into at the time, admired  Kaepernick. And while sticking with the beleaguered QB might have angered a older, white population annoyed with the league-wide protests that he had ignited, analysts came up with a damning conclusion: They weren’t a priority over the youth the company wanted to attract. And so Nike began to plot out its campaign.

Here’s the end result: Nike stock surged five percent in the month after it announced the ad campaign. Sales increased 31 percent in the week after the ad’s debut. The company’s investors seemed thrilled, with Wall Street analysts calling it a “stroke of genius.”

This is why I expect Gillette to be just fine in the aftermath of its advertisement. It has run studies on and understands how its market has shifted amid the rise of social media. Online interactions have given companies like Gillette a better grasp of its consumers than ever before. The company bet on a new generation of consumers that will carry it into the future, and it deserves praise for that.

But maybe we shouldn’t applaud them too much. Gillette took an admirable risk, but a business-savvy one. By running the advertisement, it generated a huge swarm of attention while fattening up its bottom line. It’s doubtful they would have done the same if they lost money on the endeavor.

It’s a brilliant business move hidden beneath moral signaling. Let’s not mistake one for the other.

William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Willpower runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com.