Gillette has hit a nerve.
On Monday, the P&G brand released an update to its 30-year-old “The Best a Man Can Get” campaign, and the work held a mirror to our politically polarized culture. The old ad was a universally upbeat portrayal of men doing things like attending a wedding, playing sports, working a trade desk, flirting with a woman and teaching their sons how to shave.
The new spot is something very different. It features a series of men looking at themselves both literally and metaphorically and calls upon men to help stop behaviors like bullying, harassment and misogyny while asking themselves whether they are truly the best they can be.
While many viewers saw the ad as a positive reflection of the changes in how brands address male consumers, others read it as the latest affront to men for being men. For its part, P&G seems satisfied with the campaign’s results so far.
“Our intent was to create a debate on the positive role that men can have,” a company spokesperson said. “I think its fair to say that debate is in full effect.”
P&G has no plans to pull the ad, which is currently running online. “Sparking debate is the goal, and we think debate is healthy,” the spokesperson added. Gillette’s creative agency of record, Grey New York, declined to comment on the ad.
And Gillette is hardly the first brand to pivot when it comes to shifting perceptions of gender in modern society. Here are four others that adapted or completely abandoned their longtime strategies, along with the responses those efforts received:
From 2005 to 2012, the domain registrar was all but synonymous with raunchy Super Bowl ads.
In 2013, however, the brand very publicly announced it was done with the sleaze, hired a new agency and ran two new, more restrained Super Bowl ads. Since then, GoDaddy has tried several times to reinvent itself, most famously pulling a controversial ad about a lost puppy and replacing it with this nondescript effort that featured a man at his desk working into the night on his small business rather than watching the Big Game.
In 2017, GoDaddy repositioned itself again with a Super Bowl ad by Bullish focused on all things internet.
Unlike Gillette, the brand has not pushed primarily male audiences to ask difficult questions about their own identities. But it’s no longer associated with unlikely kisses from models, either.
For years, Carl’s Jr. spoke to young men even more explicitly via the blunt force of sex appeal as if they couldn’t understand anything else. C-list stars from Paris Hilton to Kim Kardashian appeared on behalf of the burger chain before its marketing team eventually realized that “young hungry guys aren’t as affected by the racy ads with swimsuit models because you can get a lot of that on the internet now,” according to now-former CEO Andrew Puzder.
Here’s an example of the type of ad the brand was putting out there in 2013:
So what did the brand do to change? First, agency of record 72andSunny parted ways with the creative leads on the account. Then Carl’s Jr. flipped the old script and quite literally blew it up, creating a narrative in which fictional patriarch Carl Hardee Sr. blamed his son for all the bikini-heavy spots and promised a return to “food, not boobs.”
Eighteen months and one agency review later, the brand took things a step further, recruiting satirist Celeste Barber to overtly mock its own “classic” ads from the Paris Hilton era.
Did the new approach work? Try and think about when you last heard about a controversy over Carl’s Jr.’s advertising to answer that one.
Ah, teenage boys.
Unilever’s Axe has long appealed to that core demo with a single message: Use our products and more women will pay attention to you. Who can forget the not-exactly-nuanced “Nothing Beats an Astronaut” series?
Ultimately, however, this approach proved somewhat limited, even after Axe established itself as the go-to brand for young men eager to do whatever it took to get themselves on the ladies’ radar. In 2016, the company announced it would be changing its game after internal research found that less than 40 percent of women said they could relate to its ads, only 3 percent of which depicted female characters in “managerial, leadership or professional roles.” A mere 1 percent included women being funny.
Axe’s more gradual evolution began with an ad in which two men kiss. Its most notable manifestation to date may be this 2017 spot from 72andSunny Amsterdam that gets to a fundamental question: How do young men see themselves, and how should brands address them?
This approach is most similar to that adopted by Gillette, even if later efforts backtracked slightly. Axe remains the world’s top-selling men’s grooming brand, and its latest effort at expansion involved launching a new record label to court the hip-hop audience. We’ll get back to you on that one.
For a decade, Jonathan Goldsmith was the manliest man in all of advertising. He was, after all, the Most Interesting Man in the World.
Dos Equis may not have been speaking only to men, but this early spot and others that came later clearly concerned perceptions of masculinity.
The news in 2016 that Goldsmith would not be reprising his role came as something of a shock to marketers. He had, after all, helped the brand become a household name and move millions of bottles of its signature product.
After that, Dos Equis didn’t seem to know what to do with itself. After casting a younger actor in the role, it pivoted toward a new positioning based on what Goldsmith had established with a newfound focus on the product. As brand director Quinn Kilbury put it, “He’s not dead; we’re intentionally not killing him. But we need to focus on the brand and getting its benefits out to the world, versus a focus on The Man.”
With these and other recent ads, Dos Equis looked to transcend its reputation as a beer for the man’s man and expand its audience in the process, but sales have declined since awareness of the spokesman himself first began to dip.
Like Gillette, all of these brands faced significant challenges when attempting to change the way they addressed their primarily male audiences. At first glance, it might seem that they didn’t get such dramatic pushback. But then again, the public has a very short memory.
Yesterday, P&G competitor Harry’s deleted a year-old tweet reading:
“Today is International Men’s Day. Believe it or not, that’s a thing. Now more than ever, being a man demands introspection, humility, and optimism. To get to a better tomorrow, we need to take a look at today, and at the misguided stereotypes that got us here in the first place.”
Does that message sound familiar? The campaign, “A Man Like You,” remains live on Harry’s website.
A spokesperson declined to comment on the brand’s decision to delete that tweet.
Don't miss the Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit and Upfronts, a live virtual experience Nov. 16-19. Gain insights from leading sports figures on how they navigated a year of upsets and transformation and what's in store for the coming year. Register.