I wonder if Gillette anticipated the response their new campaign would receive when they released their new campaign on Sunday – both the support and the backlash. The company, after thirty years of relying on a certain type of masculinity to sell its product, has now pivoted to a modified version of their signature slogan: “Gillette: the Best a Man Can Be.” From “the Best a Man Can Get”. The new slogan was unveiled with a video that generated waves across social media, with “Gillette” trending on Twitter on Monday and a topic of debate through the week. Some praised the brand’s bravery for addressing toxic masculinity. Others denounced the video for what they saw as an apparent attack on men, swearing off all Gillette products. One person even dramatically flushed their razor. (Sis, that’s not how that works but good luck calling the plumber.) If you haven’t seen it, here’s the video, which now has over 17 million views:
I like it. I think it has a positive message which is simple: as men, we haven’t been our best and we need to start doing better. Apparently, that first part is the controversial statement because it portrays all men as evil (remember the #NotAllMen movement?). I don’t see it that way, and I don’t think the video is trying to convey that, but I think I can see where that sentiment is coming from: when you operate from a position of power, criticisms of where you derive that power might seem like a direct attack on you. Which is how Piers Morgan took it:
I've used @Gillette razors my entire adult life but this absurd virtue-signalling PC guff may drive me away to a company less eager to fuel the current pathetic global assault on masculinity.— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) January 14, 2019
Let boys be damn boys.
Let men be damn men. https://t.co/Hm66OD5lA4
Being a dumbass, as you know, is not new for Piers. This time he uses a term found in a lot of posts criticizing Gillette: “Virtue signalling.” Forgive my ignorance, but when I read that, I had no idea what it meant. I know I’m like four years behind the curve on this one but bear with me while I define it.
Remember when everyone changed their Facebook profile for the 2015 attacks in Paris? I did it. I’m sure many of you did too. It was like a sea of red, white, and blue. This is virtue signaling. Adding a faded flag on top of your profile picture takes little effort, achieves very little, but demonstrates to everyone how #woke you are. It’s like crashing a potluck dinner. You reap all the benefit (delicious food), without paying any of the cost (everyone else having to cook it). The current use of the term first originated in an article by James Bartholomew, where he lamented the loss of virtue through action. Instead, he claims, “[n]o one actually has to do anything” and that “virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things.”
So why does Piers use the term with regard to the Gillette video? It’s because the term has become an insult against people, usually ones with socially progressive views. To be fair, there is an argument to be made about the corporate exploitation of social trends. Gillette still participates in gendered marketing. The company promises to spend $1 million a year for three years on programs like the Boys and Girls club but generates $6.6 billion in sales a year. People have also been quick to point out this hypocritical picture. And despite the passionate disowning of Gillette products, the company gets to profit off people’s outrage, because any press is good press. When has Gillette ever been a worldwide trending topic?
But here’s the flipside, and the larger issue with people campaigning against virtue signalling. Companies exploiting trends is not new, nor is it newsworthy. Mega corporations and their operations can be super shady. And they carry a lot of influence and power over society’s perceptions. In the LGBTQ community, companies have only recently started to include pro-queer ads when it became apparent that the demographic was profitable. At the same time, I’m still pumped when I see pride colours at Target. Because companies can drive normalization, an important step in popularizing ideas or attitudes. Although Bartholomew may lament the lack of action, he ignores the power of words to spread ideas and start widespread change. Gillette’s “virtue signalling” video has now taken a relatively new conversation, historically speaking, to a new global level of participation.
Virtue signalling doesn’t actually mean anything. When people express their opinions, they also express their virtues; the two go hand in hand. While it’s perfectly acceptable to criticize inaction, slacktivism, and general apathy towards important issues, playing the virtue signalling card is a sign of defeat. It’s the skunk spray used when you’re backed into a corner. A last-ditch effort to discredit a person rather than their argument. People with valid critical arguments don’t rely on the VS card. By calling virtue signalling, you are launching a thinly veiled attempt to assert your intellectual superiority (false as it may be) in order to shut out voices that you don’t like hearing.
Here’s a line from Gilette’s statement:
“It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.”
Full disclosure, I am not the epitome of macho masculinity. In fact, for a lot of my life, I felt like an outsider. In the past, I’ve been ashamed about how scrawny I am, about the colour of my skin, about my nerdy interests, and especially about being gay. I suck at sports, and I’m even less interested in them. The closest thing I’ve come to watching baseball is that VMA performance where Beyoncé smashes the camera. I’ve learned that I’m not “masculine” through the people who have told me so, intentionally or not. I’ve learned that I’m not “masculine” from the plethora of ads that show me a hyperbolized version of what I should aim to be. I’ve learned that I’m not “masculine” by never seeing people who look and act like me in mainstream media. Virtue signalling or not, Gillette’s ad speaks volumes. It confirms what I have struggled to learn over 23 years, and frames those struggles in a hopeful, and positive light. The end of the video focuses on the upcoming generation. Regardless of the actions behind these messages, if kids grow up hearing ads that involve “positive, attainable, inclusive, and healthy versions” of men, I say bring it on.