For starters, controversy itself is no longer the conversational cutting edge it once was. In this era of fake-versus-false news, universal short attention spans and ludicrous overstatement as the entry price for even being noticed, the mere prospect of people jawboning with each other in some hyper-overreactive way often barely merits a second look.
That’s doubly true when the source of the purported controversy is some corporate behemoth funding a mega-million-dollar advertising campaign explicitly to draw attention to its product.
If a company such as Gillette can manipulate the non-Amish/anti-hipster males of North America into dragging its razor blades across their faces every morning, would it necessarily be a cut above manipulating them into a manufactured social media spit fight?
Call me Mr. Cynical, but au contraire. It’s exactly what they’d love to do – and thanks for all the free publicity, lads.
Marketing experts point out, after all, that Gillette has lost about 20 per cent of its market share in recent years to upstart discount razor companies, especially those offering automatic at-home delivery. Where once the brand controlled 70 per cent of the facial scraping market, it’s now down to about half.
That’s more than incentive enough to get people yakking about your product as a prelude to having them believe they’ve made a conscious decision to buy it again.
As those who watched the brilliant Mad Men television series learned in the first show of the first season, advertising stopped being about directly selling products almost 60 years ago. It became about selling the experience of the product. Then it shifted to selling the appropriate feelings to have about the product. Not for nothing did Coke try to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony a generation ago – during its bitter cola market share war with Pepsi.
Counter-intuitively, though, the very prevalence of such hidden persuasions is what makes the Gillette ‘controversy’ one of those rare occasions when serious debate is warranted about what the munchkins of Madison Avenue are trying to get us to think and do.
With its advertising campaign, the company has stepped boldly into the socio-political minefields of #MeToo, bullying, spousal abuse and male self-absorption.
Its spots make what might (using the word broadly and charitably) be an argument that real men take “No” for an answer – and, indeed, have the decency to always ask and listen.
Real men certainly don’t physically assault their partners but they don’t play psychological power games, either. Real men don’t, by word or example, teach their children, especially sons, that the best a man can get is whatever he can get away with.
What possible objection could there be to any of that?
There are at least two, even if they fail as complete arguments.
The first, and most blunt, is to question what a private sector, for-profit, uber-capitalist shaving company is doing telling its (increasingly former) customers how to behave?
It doesn’t require being the sharpest knife in the drawer to grasp that Gillette’s business is making the best shaving products it can provide for the money and maximizing shareholder value.
Even those who’d counter that profiting from making and selling goods entails a responsibility to promote social goods can see how the second objection arises by digging deeper into the first. It’s this: how far down that line do we go before we’re within a whisker of letting the corporate determine the political?
My Cardus colleague Ray Pennings has warned for several years about the dangers of political parties becoming nothing more than electoral marketing machines. Arguably, the more horrifying aspects of Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president are a backlash against that exact phenomenon.
What happens when the politics-by-marketing machine is indistinguishable from marketing machine by politics?
We don’t need to look too far back in history to know that’s not a circumstance we want to face. If the debate Gillette has touched off even scratches that surface, it will have been worthwhile.
Peter Stockland is senior writer with the think-tank Cardus and publisher of Convivium.ca.