A response to Gillette — exploitation & erasure in American masculinity

I originally wrote this in response to the ad released in January of 2019. It has taken me this long to publish due to the emotional toll of the resulting discussion.

The “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” Gillette ad has stirred up conversation and controversy, and rightfully so; I find its intentions suspect and its execution problematic.

This ‘short’’ was emotionally laborious and stressful to watch for me personally. It came with significant expectations due to functionally unanimous praise from progressives and invective from the right.

Opening with a series of men in front of a literal mirror, the message is clear: there’s a conversation all men need to have both with themselves and with each other. Driven by lambent inspirational strings, the (now-eminent) conversation is revealed, its answer given over a series of short narratives with a common structure: men being (terrible) traditional men and better men intervening, modeling the ‘best men can be’ for the next generation of men.

Make no mistake; this is absolutely correct. Men need to do this work, we need to do this work now, and we need to keep doing this work and never stop.

Progressives are lauding Gillette for its risk-taking, its commitment to social responsibility and, most misguided in my opinion, its commitment to diversity.

Pardon my cynicism; this ’short’ has been widely successful in generating conversation and controversy while centering it around Gillette’s brand and its singular line of products. This ad was instantly viral. That’s no accident.

Procter & Gamble, Gillette’s parent company, is one of the world’s largest companies, ranking #42 on the Fortune 500 with $66B in annual revenue, a $300B market cap, and almost 100,000 employees. It is also the #1 advertiser in the world, with $10.5B in global ad spend annually accounting for over half of all US CPG ad spend in 2017. It owns large household brands like Tide, Dawn, and Charmin (most of the brands you know are owned by a handful of conglomerates. You know these brands because their parent companies spend billions to ensure it).

Companies like P&G don’t take massive risks with their biggest brands; they have a fiduciary duty not to and they spend billions to ensure they don’t.

After a decade-long beatdown (70% marketshare in 2010 to under 50% in 2017) by direct-to-consumer competitors like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s*, Gillette has spent the last few years specifically investing in online sales and digital advertising, not to mention voluminous and arguably spurious litigation and BBB complaints (against competitors Edgewell, Shavelogic, Bevel, and Dollar Shave Club, just to name a few). They launched a subscription product in 2017 and, in a concerted effort, announced lowered prices with the “Best Men Can Be” campaign.

*Harry’s produced a much better short film addressing masculinity — I personally signed up in specific support of this ad, and I’m in love with their razors. I do not have any direct affiliation with them but I love wallet philanthropy)

You can be optimistic about a brand that gives you visibility and prominence while ignoring my very existence; I can’t

P&G is in the business of selling products, not ethics, and Gillette is here to sell you razor blades, not progress. They are doing exactly that in a masterful, studied campaign exploiting the contemporary American ethos and the fatigue of the American heart. They have indeed received some blowback from the (downmarket) far right, but ‘risk’ feels more like calculated decision, with the information that P&G has more than 800 employees with the words “data scientist” in their title.

P&G employs over 500 PhDs and had 18 active PhD openings at the time they produced this ad. They spend $2B on R&D a year and are a common subject of academic case studies

‘Risk’ in name ossifies into ‘plan’ in practice given the advertising-ubiquitous understanding that women are the primary household decisionmakers for CPG products, and specifically razors. P&G knows this, and their decision is frankly good for business: they have pushed angry, insecure men to trash their razors and created an opportunity for the wives of said men to buy more Gillette razors down the line under new branding.

They commoditize progress and exploit wellness. They always have, as has their primary competitor Unilever.

What splits the room is whether you believe Gillette took a risk for good or made a calculation that this type of ad would net positive in brand recognition/lift and, ultimately, sales and customer retention. This brings me to the emotional part: this is white privilege. You can be optimistic about a brand that gives you visibility and prominence while ignoring my very existence; I can’t.

Social media, friends, news aggregators buzz about the ad’s message, Gillette’s commitment to progress, and ‘diversity.’ If you watched this ad and saw diversity, watch it again. Pay attention to faces. Do this now, before reading further. Here’s an ellipsis while you do that:

Do you see it? There are over a hundred men in this ad about masculinity, primarily White, some Black. Even representatively Black. But missing is everyone else. White eyes see diversity as anything non-white; my Asian eyes possess the acuity to feel my own absence. Black people are of course people of color, with a long and brutal history of oppression and subjugation by Western interests, but this ad communicates to its audience that they’re the only non-white people with any relevance (read: masculinity) in America. This is biversity.

Asians have long been invisible in American media and what portrayals do exist almost exclusively consist of offensive tropes and stereotypes: specifically that Asian men aren’t Men. louis c.k. (he does not deserve capitalization, pun intended) came under fire recently for proclaiming that “Asian men are women” on stage, drawing, to audience laughter, on a historical campaign by the US to emasculate Asian men to protect white workers, combat white women’s obsession with Asian leading men in media, and leverage blue-collar white angst for political gain. This bisects the historical predicate that femininity is somehow a measure of weakness.

(it’s not)

I, personally, have been told that I’m not American (I am) by close friends and even serious partners (one, who asked me to have children with her, refuses to accept that I am as American as she is to this day). I’ve had it proudly and publicly proclaimed that, prior to meeting me, lovers believed and vocally insisted they could never be attracted to an Asian man, sanguinely insisting I wear this knowledge as a badge of honor, exemplary among my sexually nonviable kind. I’ve been described as ‘an Asian with social skills’ and praised for my confidence and masculinity, as if my personal security and self-love is surprising, unexpected, out of character.

This experience extends beyond my personal relationships. I have my authority and expertise questioned in meetings in all things non-technical. This year alone, I have been called a Chink twice, a Gook once, and was told I have Chinky eyes, in professional meetings at the executive/principal level, by people from major (‘progressive’) cities, and this behavior has never been addressed by participants or bystanders or “allies" in the entirety of my existence. I’ve had to ignore compliments on my English for the sake of business. I’ve experienced 50% less callbacks when using my real name Yeong vs the Anglicized pseudonym Dillon on the exact same resume with the exact same organizations at the exact same time, and I didn’t even test an Anglican last name.

I suffered through Gillette’s ad again just to tally the demographics (by visual inspection, which is inherently flawed). It’s important to me to emphasize this was emotionally painful (as is having to explain the significance over and over to people I know to be sociologically educated and progressively-minded, oftentimes to obstinate dismissal, and exclusively so with white men).

As a reminder of how little Asian men exist in the American ethos:

71 White men

2 White speaking roles, modeling ‘good’ men

21 White boys

16 Black men

4 Black speaking roles, modeling ‘good’ men

4 Black boys

4 ‘other’ men (all other races)

0 ‘other’ speaking roles

1 ‘other’ boy

Of the over 100 men in this ad, the individual who looked like me was a child. America (and now you, white people lauding Gillette’s progressive merit) telling me, yet again, that I am not a man.

To be clear, I love the man I am. I have always felt masculine, despite the attempts of media, friends, US society at large and the culture I live in, to tell me otherwise. I am extremely fortunate in that I had a strong, personal model for masculinity in my older brother Yi (who, by the way, now goes by Dylan professionally): a beacon for courage, confidence, and all the conventional things 90s kids were taught is ‘manly.’ Other Asian men have not been so lucky in their early development within a narrative that seeks to push us down. I hope I am a decent man today, and I know I have actively upheld patriarchy for most of my life. I will always be working to improve, and it is good that, as a society, we are raising awareness around this very urgent need for men and the conventions of masculinity to change.

Were P&G interested in truly promoting this good, it could have easily casted for ethnic diversity in the over 100 roles in this commercial about men. It’s widely accepted that personal identification impacts influence, and P&G knows this; they spend billions to ensure every second, every pixel of their marketing is intentional. I speculate that P&G did the research (remember that $2B budget) and built this campaign specifically to center around the existing American definition of masculinity: Black and White, in that order (hyper-masculinity and hyper-physicality stereotypes anchor a centuries-long campaign to position Black people as lesser, and bolster the long history of subhumanism that gave ‘reason’ for the slave trade and ongoing oppression of Black people and their voices).

There’s a ‘greater good’ here, at the cost of ‘Other’-Americans. White progressives feel entitled to approve that sacrifice with neither the weigh-in nor consent of the people being asked to give.

“We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” was painful for me to consume as it purports to exist as a “progressive” message about redefining masculinity while excluding Asian men from participation in either definition of masculinity… again.

Adding insult to injury is just how ubiquitously white progressive eyes are embracing this message and how blind (and accepting) they are to the absence of colored faces in between Black and white. When a widely disgraced ‘comedian’ says Asian men aren’t men, it’s clearly viewed as racist in educated, progressive circles. When Gillette says it by omitting us entirely from an ad about men, the topic somehow becomes ambiguous.

I have had this conversation. I have had this conversation a lot. white progressives, having literally missed the absent colors, have exclusively jumped to justify or rationalize the omission in defense of their version of progress. I was told by one radical white feminist that the ad had ‘enough Asian people;’ There’s a ‘greater good’ here, at the cost of ‘Other’-Americans. white progressives feel entitled to approve that sacrifice with neither the weigh-in nor consent of the people they are asking to give.

Is “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” an example of a large corporation taking a risk to promote change? Maybe. Knowing P&G, it’s a calculated effort motivated entirely by shareholder value, its bi-geneity a product of research on what demographics Americans find masculine. At its core, “We Believe” is an intentional corporate decision to embrace a market opportunity at the cost of change, utilizing the reinforcement with existing and harmful stereotypes on all sides.

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