What with all the hoopla surrounding Gillette's notorious "toxic masculinity" commercial, I feel almost obliged to address it in this blog. The challenge here is to provide a semiotic angle on the ad's significance without getting tangled up in a debate on what it is trying to say about male behavior. Rather, the semiotic question concerns what the ad is telling us about contemporary American society as a whole, which has gotten me thinking more about razor blades than since I stopped shaving in 1979.
A shrewd analysis of the ad in the Washington Post has given me a useful opening on the problem, and so I'll begin there. In "What Trump’s fast-food feast and Gillette’s woke razor blades have in common," Sonny Bunch draws a interesting parallel between Donald Trump's fast food spread for the Clemson Tigers and Gillette's ad by arguing that each was choreographed, in effect, to appeal to one side in the current national divide, while aggravating the other. As Bunch puts it, Trump "plays right to his populist strengths, assembling a mélange of foods that every American is familiar with and most Americans have eaten . . . [setting] a perfect trap for his critics, whose sneering at the feast will come off as elitist . . . [and thus playing] up the 'us against them' angle that has formed the heart of his appeal." Gillette, for its part, is playing to "what it hopes to claim as its base: the Ethical Consumer Signaling His Virtue, a valuable subset of customer, as Nike discovered with its Colin Kaepernick campaign." In short, Bunch concludes, "both the Fast Food Feast and Woke Gillette are explicitly designed to inspire mockery and, therefore, implicitly designed to encourage the us-vs.-them dichotomy that defines modern American life."
Now, whether or not Gillette harbored any intention to provoke, there is plenty of evidence that its ad certainly did so, as can be seen by a quick Internet search on the topic. Quite predictably, one can find conservative media outlets like Fox News railing against it, while Vox, for its part, is in accord. The polarization is just as Bunch describes it to be.
All this raises a question, then, as to the actual effectiveness of politically provocative advertising in itself. The most common measure of such effectivity, of course, is financial: that is, whether a provocative ad campaign increases sales and stock valuations for the company that creates it. For example, as I've noted in an earlier blog, the big question surrounding Nike's Colin Kaepernick campaign was what would happen to Nike's stock price. When the stock at first drooped, antagonistic pundits declared the campaign to be a failure. When Nike's stock recovered, the ad was declared a success. Similarly, Jack Neff at Ad Age observes that, since Gillette's object in its "toxic masculinity" ad is to attract millennials to its products, "the ultimate test of whether Gillette has turned millennials into believers will be sales."
Neff, of course, is right, just as anyone who argues that Nike's Kaepernick campaign is a success because the company's stock price is currently up is right. After all, increasing profits is what advertising is for. But does commercial success equate to cultural success? Gillette's claim is that its ad is intended to start a "conversation" about male behavior—presumably to do something about it. So, is the Gillette ad successful in that sense?
Here the measure of success is much more difficult to determine. Did Coca Cola make the world a better place with its "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)" campaign? Have the Benetton Group's United Colors and Unhate campaigns achieved their (noncommercial) goals? Will Gillette really cause a conversation that will make men behave better?
One way to approach this problem is to consider Bunch's contention that the Gillette campaign (and others like it) antagonizes even as it appeals, reproducing the us-vs.-them dichotomy that afflicts the country today. If Bunch is right, Gillette is preaching to a choir, not converting the opposition, and that is hardly likely to improve the situation. Wouldn't a more Rogerian approach be more effective?
Perhaps, but in the current cultural and political climate, a Rogerian ad campaign probably wouldn't get much attention, thus negating the financial and social goals of a socially conscious corporation. Controversy both sells and rallies the troops, and one can hardly blame Gillette for doing what everyone else is doing.
Then there's the whole problem of consumer activism, as a possible oxymoron, to consider. The question here is not unlike that posed by the phenomenon known as "slacktivism"—a derogatory term for social media activism that ends at clicking "like" buttons, signing petitions, and retweeting political tweets (you can read more about this in Brian Dunning's "Slacktivism: Raising Awareness" in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). That is, purchasing a product because the company that sells it shares your values (or wants you to believe it does) is an act of consumption, not a direct action, even though buying a product for political reasons may feel like doing something meaningful. But is it?
What we have in the end is a powerful signifier of what it means to live in a consumer society. In such a society, consumption, as the measure of all things, is routinely confused with action, whereby wearing the tee shirt is regarded as a substantive political act. This sort of thing can be quite good for the corporate bottom line, but whether it is good for democracy is another question.