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'Gillette rejecting sexism just means that being outrageously sexist is now bad for business'

Gillette does not deserve our applause, and indeed it would be wise for us to view such campaigns with some caution, writes Éilis Ryan.

Éilis Ryan

THIS WEEK, GILLETTE released an advert which, using a play on their old slogan ‘The Best a Man Can Get’, calls on men to act as an example to their sons by treating women with decency and respect.

Generally acclaimed, media coverage of what criticism there has been of the ad has
focussed on the Piers Morgans of the world; men – mostly older, white and rich – who believe they’ve been dealt a raw deal by the push for greater rights by young women.

I don’t have any sympathy for Piers and his ilk. I know precisely how it feels to be belittled, spoken down to, underestimated and harassed because I am a woman.

But I also know that neither Gillette nor any other mega-company in the world is driven by anything except its bottom line.

There are, of course, women who believe there is nothing wrong with the enormous profits which Gillette, and its parent company Procter & Gamble, make each year. But for the rest of us, a corporation such as Gillette rejecting sexism should be seen as, at best, a mild sign that being outrageously sexist is now bad for business.

Source: Gillette/YouTube

It certainly does not deserve our applause, and indeed it would be wise for us to view such campaigns with some caution.

Is it really any harm?

Many will call me a cynic, unable to accept this as a win for women’s activism.

What’s the harm in Gillette making a profit, if their end goal delivers what we are looking for anyway? Aren’t they only trying to sell a few razors?

If Gillette was simply to sponsor a charity, or establish a women’s leadership programme, its efforts would be readily dismissed as self-interested altruism.

But as audiences have become more wary of corporate power, advertising has responded by using more nuanced and sophisticated methods for shoring up positive sentiment towards its brand – or even just neutralising the worst of the negative sentiment.

The global spend on advertising has reached well over half a trillion dollars. And given the technological developments in the razor business have been marginal, for a product like Gillette, brand is key.

Take the example of Ben & Jerry’s. The ice-cream company has successfully cultivated an
image as environmentalist, feminist and progressive. And yet they are owned by Unilever, the world’s fifth largest consumer goods company, and one with a far from pristine social justice record.

The ‘soft power’ which Ben & Jerry’s has built up as a brand which is separate from, and better than, evil corporate multinationals, is the very thing which makes it so attractive to Unilever.

And it maintains a safe distance between it and other Unilever brands like ‘Slim Fast’ and ‘Pot Noodle’ – icons of a global advertisement-fuelled diet/obesity epidemic which is poles apart from Ben & Jerry’s hippy-love image.

In the baby boomer, novelty-obsessed 1950s or 1960s, being a global mega-brand was a sign of progress, something capable of boosting sales. Now, it has become a liability. And we can be sure that companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble spotted trends like ‘ethical consumerism’, ‘craft produce’, and ‘artisan’, before we Joe-soaps even knew what to call them.

In the ultimate modern irony, in order to ensure ever-greater profit and global dominance, corporations have had to invent more and more sophisticated mechanisms to distance themselves from that very objective of profit creation and global domination.

Idealism sells.

And nobody is better at packaging, marketing and selling idealism than a
corporate advertising guru.

Gillette and the marketing of the female razor Gillette has particular skin in the game (pun intended) when it comes to shoring up positive female consumer sentiment.

It has long come under pressure for pursuing radically different marketing strategies to sell what was fundamentally the same product – a razor – to men versus to women.

It has been forced to pull adverts which sought to increase female razor purchases by telling women that shaving would help them ‘get close to their man’. It’s website hosts a
section for “tweens” (8-11 year olds), encouraging their parents to proactively teach them how to shave.

A cursory look through their current advertising material would suggest that, while Gillette may have embraced the concept that men should not hound women in the street (congratulations!), they intend to continue depicting men as athletic powerhouses, and women as delicate, pastel-coloured sex kittens.

Pink tax

Gendered segregation of audiences has proven one of the advertising industry’s most
successful tools. But it’s one that has come under increasing backlash, as consumers became more aware of how ‘unisex’ products that were once sold to humans – lego, razors, ‘Bic’ biros – had been ‘diversified’ into two distinct product streams; one for men, and one for women.

These ad campaigns reinforce stereotypical ideas about the behaviours and preferences of the sexes in a way that perpetuates inequality, including the types of behaviour rightly reviled in its latest anti-sexism campaign.

But Gillette are not about to abandon such damaging gendered marketing strategies. It is far less risky to just run a feel-good ad campaign about men not being sexist.

We must resist capitalism’s attempts to use women’s equality as its alibi Procter & Gamble, the company who own Gillette, are the second-largest consumer goods
company in the world, after Nestlé.

A cursory examination of their workers and environmental rights record shows up consistent use of child slave agricultural labour by their brands, while the company director takes home $5 million every year.

There is widespread evidence the company’s brands have been engaged in destruction of large tracts of rainforest for palm production, active membership of corporate fuel lobbies against climate action and a host of other major abuses.

Over 50% of its political donations in 2016 went to Trump’s Republican Party in his election year.

These facts should be sufficient to prevent any ‘moral rehabilitation’ of Gillette or any other Procter & Gamble brand. And yet, one of capitalism’s most extraordinary traits – and why it remains the structure that dominates us – is its ability to morph, change and shift in response to a changing globe.

While we may associate it with mega-brands such as Coca-Cola, it has demonstrated an uncanny ability to develop an image which is altogether less corporate, if that is what is required to keep its profits up.

The only thing that will not change, in all of this, is capitalism’s continued need to drive up its profits at the expense of the very workers who produce those profits.

Corporations like Gillette do far more harm than good. We must resist their attempts to use women’s equality as their alibi.

Éilis Ryan is a Dublin City Councillor for the Workers’ Party. She is a European election candidate in Dublin this year.

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Éilis Ryan

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