February 6, 2019



“The best a man can be”: title of a 2 min promotional video that has recently divided the world in half (if you haven’t watched it yet, please go to YouTube and watch it before reading this article any further). The ad champions behaviors involving standing up to bullies, not allowing physical violence, and respecting women through gender equality–and above all, role modeling this behavior for the next generation of men. At the time I am writing this piece, the video has garnered 25 million views, 705K likes, and a staggering 1.2 million dislikes on YouTube. It is an addition to the growing list of campaigns where major brands have attempted to take a position on trending social issues in recent times, which has backfired more often than not. I will not get into the moral aspect of this conversation; rather will discuss this risk and potential rewards of running such promotions from a marketing academic point of view.

Ad campaigns centered on a social issue has always been a double-edged sword: the inevitable outcome of taking a side in any argument. An ideal case study of this is Red Bull’s 2013 campaign which expressed its support for same sex marriage; a move that earned the company widespread applause but also provoked resistance from more conservative consumers. However, the main theme of the Gillette ad, toxic masculinity and how men need to take responsibility for it, has been hit with criticism from two very different angles. A research, which analyzed 920,000 social media posts relating to this ad, revealed that the campaign received 64 percent negative buzz (compared to 34 percent positive) in the first 48 hours of the video being released. Men, mostly white, have overwhelmingly felt offended and misrepresented in this ad; a 53% net negative buzz coming out of social media posts from men. However, quite unexpectedly, 37% women also reacted negatively to the ad citing this as a cheap attempt by a big brand to capitalize on pro-feminist causes including the recent #metoo movement in social media.

One can remember a similar allegation, almost unanimously, against Pepsi’s 2017 “Live for Now Moments Anthem” (whatever that means) campaign featuring Kendall Jenner. It came at a moment when whole United States was charged up with protests against Trump’s “Muslim ban” and the continuing “Black lives matter” movement. Pepsi eventually had to pull the ad after facing a huge uproar across the board. Now this isn’t to say, by any means, that there is no success story of brands standing for social causes. Lyft took a strong stance against Trump’s “Muslim Ban” (contrary to its chief competitor, Uber) by donating $1 million to ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in order to aid its efforts to “defend the constitution”. P&G also received universal acclaim for its “Like a Girl” and “We see equal” campaigns promoting empowerment of women and girls.

The key question to ask here, as a marketer, is whether such storm in tea cups end up positively impacting a company’s business or not. Like all things in marketing, there is obviously no straight-forward answer to this question either. A study published by Forbes shows that nearly 87% Americans have shown interest in making purchase decision based on the company’s advocacy concerning a social matter. What is more significant, and also alarming, is that 76% of these people said that they would stop doing business with a company if it supports issues that conflict with his own beliefs and principles.

So it is quite clear that staying silent on burning social issues would not be wise for companies and the age old saying of “you win some, you lose some” will still hold true in this case. However, the most critical aspect for organizations to remember is being consistent on their stance on social causes. One of the backlashes Gillette is facing, especially from the female segment, is that it has often objectified women in its marketing communications before and now it’s simply trying to profit from the evolved social scenario. Leslie Gaines-Ross, in her 2017 HBR articles, argues that consistent position on social causes help organizations garner support for their stance from their stakeholders, including customers. For example, P&G has always maintained strong support from its customer base throughout its recent pro-women campaigns simply because that has long been the value of the brand and has been reflected consistently in its communications. The strategy should be to ensure that the brand’s loyal base isn’t taken by shock or surprise with its social position. It might be wise to ease into the new social value gradually and with increasing boldness, rather than a sudden big bang campaign. This is probably the trick Gillette missed in this recent case, no matter how noble its intentions were.


The writer is a marketing enthusiast working as a mid level manager in the fintech industry

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