Business schools are growing like weeds in the nation’s universities, many of them endowed by the smart, the clever, and the innovative upon whom capitalism has not merely smiled, but laughed out loud.
Some of these wizards with a corner office at Gillette think they have discovered the magic formula they never learned in a classroom. Why be nice to your most loyal customers when you can resort to snark, snarl and insult, putting those customers in their place and pander to the feminists in a perpetual pout at #MeToo. This remarkable experiment in revolutionary counter-marketing has caught the eye and attention of marketing mavens worldwide. You don’t need expensive research to figure out that women don’t buy many razor blades (and some of the ladies of the #MeToo persuasion obviously don’t buy any).
Gillette has its own history of toxic masculinity. The maker of the blue blade was once synonymous with boxing, football and other violent manly exercises. Little boys grew up thinking the Friday Night Fights, the World Series and the New Year’s Day bowl games were owned and operated by Gillette. A little boy grew up determined to “look sharp” and “be sharp,” and learned to shave with a Gillette blade, dreaming of the day a dishy blonde or dark brunette would caress his cheek to see how smooth it was and step out of a sexually suggestive Gillette commercial to declare upon close inspection that he was in fact “all a man can be.”
After millions of views of a remarkable television commercial depicting men as bullies and sexual harassers encouraging little boys to fight each other, abuse women, and display the crudest kind of “toxic masculinity,” the narrator tells men that it’s time for them to “stop making excuses and renounce the idea that ‘boys will be boys’.”
The idea that the way to make money and reform the world is to diss loyal customers and cater to those without much use for your product would never have occurred to most of the professors at business schools, but Gillette, the dominant manufacturer of razor blades, is betting that snark and insult is the way for the company to be all it can be.
“We weren’t trying to court controversy, says Pankaj Bhalla, the “director of the brand” at Gillette. “We were just trying to upgrade the selling line that we’ve had for 30 years — the Best a Man Can Get — and make it relevant. I don’t think our intention was to have controversy just for the same of controversy.” This was said with a straight face, so perhaps it was meant to be believed.
Gillette is a big company, highly profitable and when Procter and Gamble acquired it 14 years ago it had to pay $57 billion for it. We can assume the wizards in the corner offices think they know what they’re doing. Gillette makes sharp razor blades, as almost any man could tell you, as well as a top-selling shaving cream. Men are always on the scout for something to relieve the drudgery of the morning shave, and Gillette once had an astonishing market share of 70 percent. That share has dropped to 50 percent over the past decade. Not even slashing the price of their simple and inexpensive razors has stopped the bleeding (as it were).
One undeniable sin of the modern man is that male grooming is not what it used to be. Whether men are growing a beard, emulating Karl Marx, or just settling for the sloppy look, the daily shave is clearly out, as a cursory inspection of the passing parade demonstrates. Research shows that the millennials, the market of the immediate future whether the marketers like it or not, want a “socially conscious” razor blade.
Reaction to the commercial and the controversy has been remarkably negative. Comments on Gillette’s own YouTube channel have been running 10 to 1 against the message of the commercial, and if only a few of the angry men keep their vow to throw their razors in the toilet it will be good news for the nation’s plumbers. Someone will have to unclog a lot of toilets.
Insulting men, particularly white men, is currently in high vogue, but Gillette is testing the theory that anything can be overdone. The marketplace will be a sorry place when it’s all about angry boycotts and everyone refers to a sanctions list to determine which toothpaste, deodorant or diaper to drop into the shopping cart. But Gillette can’t say it didn’t ask for it.
Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club are standing by to assist Gillette’s fall from invincibility and two marketing guys in the corner offices are hiding in the closet. Boys will be boys, and some of their former customers have their razors ready to make some unkind cuts.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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