People always have mixed reactions when they see an advertisement that scarcely mentions the brand promoting it or the product it's supposed to make you want to buy. Some think it's hilarious. Others are confused. But these product-absent ads often go one of two directions; either they're poorly thought-out flops, or they're so powerful and/or innovative that they work better than a traditional ad ever could.

Gillette's latest ad, a two-minute video that explores what it means to be a man, or more specifically a "good" man," in today's society, comes off more like a short film or a work of art than an ad about shaving. Apart from an opening featuring men staring at a bathroom mirror, and almost-conspicuously clean-shaven men throughout the video, there's no real mention of shaving, razors, beards, or even the Gillette brand (though it is featured at the end). Instead, it focuses on images of bullying, female objectification, the #MeToo movement, "mansplaining," and other forms of toxic masculinity.

Of course, Gillette isn't the first shaving brand to push for a more refined picture of masculinity, but it is one of the prominent--and it's certainly making an impact.

The video almost immediately went viral, getting more than 16 million views within its first few days of circulation. Some have praised the ad as being an image of masculinity that everyone should strive for, and a "woke" acknowledgment of the challenges of the modern era. Others are more negative, either criticizing the ad for buying into negative stereotypes about men or lambasting Gillette for abusing a political platform for the purpose of winning customer loyalty. Some even went more extreme by threatening a product boycott, posting pictures of Gillette razors in trash cans. 

Regardless of where you stand on the political and cultural stances made by the ad, I think there's one thing we can all agree on: the ad is working. But why?

Brand Over Product

First, modern consumers (particularly millennials) are making purchasing decisions not based on the allure of a specific product, but based on the image of the brand behind that product--and their standards are increasingly focusing on the ethics of that brand. For example, 73 percent of millennials are willing to pay more for products that come from a brand with sustainable practices, as are 66 percent of modern consumers globally. And studies consistently show that millennials are much more willing to spend money with brands that feature pro-social messages and ethical business standards.

In other words, the demographic with the most buying power isn't interested in how good your razor is--or at least, it's not as interested as it used to be. Instead, it's interested in the ethics of the brand producing those razors, and Gillette used this ad to wave its pro-social, ethical, woke flag.

Controversy and Visibility

That said, I'd argue that Gillette knew full well that this ad would irritate some people. Part of an advertisement's success depends on its visibility; the more people it can reach, the more value it will have. You can pay for that exposure, but that eats into your ROI. Instead, it's better to earn that increased visibility as naturally as possible, and one way to practically guarantee visibility is through controversy.

People who feel strongly about a piece of content are much more likely to share it and talk about it online--and that's regardless of whether that's a strong positive or a strong negative. Whether someone shares the ad because they love the message or because they hate it, Gillette ends up winning.

This isn't a hard rule, of course--there are plenty of examples of brands attempting to stir controversy or capitalize on politics and failing (like Pepsi's trivialization of the Black Lives Matter movement)--but for the most part, visibility and reach are good things. The customers they lose will pale in comparison to the increased loyalty of the customers they win, and new customers they'll win from the increased brand recognition.

Timing

Gillette also benefitted from the timing of the ad. It came out not immediately in response to the #MeToo movement, but not so far past it that the conversation became less relevant. This gave their brand experts time to truly understand the movement (and not grossly misrepresent it, the way some brands have with other hashtags in the past), yet still let them strike when emotions were running high on the subject.

Does this mean your brand should strive to embed polarizing political messages in your next advertisement? Absolutely not. Such a move is risky at best and foolish at worst; if you're going to be successful, you need to be confident that you'll not only reach the right audience with your message, but that you'll convey the message in a way that seems sincere, rather than exploitative. It's a dangerous line to walk, but if you can walk it gracefully, it can benefit you tremendously.

Gillette overtly paints a picture of a new era for masculinity and gender relations, but perhaps unintentionally also illustrates a new era for advertising and consumer relations. There's much to learn from this contentious--yet undeniably effective--ad.