Is Gillette's new, much-chattered-about campaign calling out men to do more to fight back against toxic masculinity a brilliant marketing move or an epic disaster on the level of Pepsi's Kendall Jenner ad? Much of the commentary around this question has focused on the general issue of whether brands should wade into politics.

That's the wrong question to ask.

Why? For one, it is pretty conclusively answered by research. If you're targeting a younger audience then, yes, they want brands to take a stand on important issues of the day.

A recent poll by Sprout Social found that "two-thirds of consumers (66 percent) say it's important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues," while a 2017 Edelman survey agreed that "the majority of Millennials (60 percent) are belief-driven buyers." Remember, Nike's controversial Colin Kaepernick ad had a positive effect on sales and earnings, and Patagonia's stance on the environment helped it take the crown as one of Inc.'s companies of the year.

Taking a stand on social issues isn't dumb unto itself. It can be an excellent strategy. But that doesn't mean Gillette's ad wasn't dumb. It was. But as communication professor Alan Abitbol explained recently on The Conversation, the problem wasn't the message, it was the execution.

What makes for a good issue ad?

The right question to ask about Gillette's campaign isn't whether brands should take stands on social issues, it's whether this brand should have taken a stand on this issue. And if it should have, was this a good way to do it? Abitbol makes a strong argument that the answer to both those questions is no.

Good issue ads, he notes, always show a clear tie between the product and the message. Patagonia stands up for the environment because its customers love nature and use its gear there. Nike applauding Kaepernick's courage in speaking out against police brutality is right in line with their long-standing message of empowering people to do whatever they're dreaming of doing.

Gillette is a traditionally male-focused brand, so it has some standing to comment on how we define masculinity, but the connection is tenuous. Does Gillette have any more reason to speak on this issue than Coors Light, Under Armour, or any other male-focused brand?

This lack of a strong link between the brand and the issue is problematic, but where the company really falls down, according to Abitbol, is with the execution of the ad. The problem, in short, is that razors never make an appearance.

"Viewers might be questioning the company's motives because the ad doesn't directly tie the cause to what the brand is known for: shaving and grooming," he writes. "In a study I conducted about how consumers perceive messages of female empowerment, showcasing the product--and tying the product to the message--seemed to resonate best."

Slapping your logo on a random cause annoys people.

Take this Dodge campaign showing powerful women using the trucks to do badass things, from working on a ranch to mountain climbing to ferrying around toddlers. It works, Abitbol points out, because the product and message are naturally woven together. Dodge stands for toughness and women are tough as heck too, it wants you to know.

Contrasts that ad with this Verizon commercial urging girls to embrace science. It "didn't resonate as well, because the only clue that it was an ad for Verizon was a Verizon logo at the end," Abitbol notes.

Which pretty well sums up his argument about what makes for a successful issue ad. If you're just randomly slapping your logo on some cause--one you can't even figure out how to show embodied in your product on screen--you're going to come off to many as an inauthentic opportunist.

The problem isn't taking a stance. It's what stance you take and how you take it. And by this measure, Gillette failed resoundingly.

Published on: Jan 22, 2019
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