by Zoe Weil
Gillette’s new ad, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” has quickly gone viral, eliciting a storm of backlash.
After watching it, almost teary, because its end was so powerful, poignant, and important, I found the backlash perplexing.
I perceived the ad as a positive, caring vision of how men can and should act in a world that is learning (or trying to learn) to confront the destructive impacts of patriarchy (which harm women and girls as well as men and boys).
Against the backdrop of current issues surrounding #MeToo, toxic masculinity, and bullying, I thought the ad provided an alternative vision to a “boys will be boys” mindset, by showing men intervening when confronted with sexist and bullying behavior and calling for a courageous masculinity that valorizes integrity and compassion over violence and chauvinism.
Many men are interpreting this advertisement as depicting men as awful and as Gillette scolding them.
But the backlash goes beyond these defensive reactions.
One commentator described the ad as trying to “brainwash young boys to become docile and weak.” His YouTube video has already received thousands of likes.
After perusing comments online, I watched the ad again to more carefully identify the messages it’s trying to convey to men. These were the most salient to me:
- Do the right thing (don’t bully or harass others).
- Be good fathers, both by empowering daughters and being good role models to sons.
- Refuse to be a bystander and courageously intervene when you witness sexism or bullying.
- Strive to be better men.
Nowhere did I hear or see messages to boys to be docile or weak.
Nowhere did I hear or see messages that all men are bad or sexist.
I counted more instances of courageous and compassionate behavior among the men depicted in the ad than crass or harassing behavior, with most of the close ups of men suggesting – through their open, uplifted expressions – that they are on the cusp of challenging themselves to do better (which is the explicit call to action of the ad).
In the instances where particularly sexist behavior was depicted, it was in a cartoon and old sitcom, implicitly distancing modern men from outdated behavior to which, as the ad states, there is “no going back.”
See the ad here (1:48 min):
While this ad serves as a useful teaching tool, it’s important to remind students (and ourselves) that this is an advertisement meant to sell products. The trend of corporations promoting goodness as a vehicle for selling products is troublesome, especially when those same companies are complicit in inhumane and destructive practices.
I invite you to watch this ad and, if you are a middle or high school teacher, to share it with your students. Then ask yourself and your students these questions:
- What messages do you think the ad is trying to convey to men and boys? To women and girls?
- What are the different ways men and boys are portrayed? Why do you think they’re portrayed those ways?
- If you are male, do you identify with any of the boys or men in the ad? How so?
- How does this ad make you feel? Why?
- The ad refers to toxic masculinity. What do you think is meant by toxic masculinity, and how is it different from the masculinity the ad seeks to promote?
- What examples of toxic masculinity have you seen, whether from your own experiences or in media, culture, etc.?
- What do you think is meant by the phrase “boys will be boys” that is chanted in the ad? Why is this phrase presented as negative?
- How do you feel about companies that wish to sell products using social messages as a vehicle to advertise their brand? Does it make you more inclined to support the company? Less inclined? Neither more nor less? Why?
- Have your thoughts and feelings about Gillette changed from watching the ad?
- Why do you think this ad has generated such an angry backlash? What does that backlash say about where we are in our society?
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