Toxic Masculinity is a much needed conversation

By Daniele Fiandaca | co-founder

January 18, 2019 | 9 min read

Gillette’s ad tackling toxic masculinity hit the headlines hard this week receiving both applause and derision. Recognising that certain aspects of masculinity are toxic is not about damning men. It’s simply pointing out that certain society learned behaviours can be damaging for both men and everyone else. One way toxic masculinity can manifest itself is that men are simply not allowed to show self-doubt or vulnerability. And this is killing men. Suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45, with a man killing themselves
on average every two hours in the UK.

It’s great to see an issue Token Man has been discussing for some time on the national agenda - it’s an important subject often ignored - and we applaud Gillette for bringing it to the fore. At our masculinity in the workplace conference in November 2018 we spent an evening with 180 men and women sharing experiences, research and personal stories on the damage done by aspects of masculinity that are toxic. The speakers were so insightful and inspiring we thought who better than this set of specialists to share their thoughts on the campaign and its potential impact. Here’s what they had to say:

Laura Radcliffe, lecturer in organisational psychology at The University of Liverpool

This advert is brave and important. Media have a key role to play in what becomes the norms of our society – what is considered normal, acceptable and desirable for men and women. Decades of gendered media depictions have contributed to the formation of a problematic and one-sided notion of masculinity (and femininity) – telling us what we should strive for and what is acceptable (and not acceptable), and for whom. It, therefore, seems fitting that media now takes seriously the responsibility to challenge previous restrictive depictions of masculinity (and femininity), which have been highlighted as problematic.

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Gillette ad

Why toxic masculinity needs discussing

As humans, we are social, caring, compassionate, ambitious and sometimes aggressive but society has restricted the viable elements that we feel able to express, depending on our anatomy. This limits us all from being well-rounded humans who take care of and value one another, whilst striving to fulfill our own needs and desires. I see this advert as a positive step in beginning to address this important issue.

So, well done to Gillette for this bold and courageous move and I hope this will pave the way for other brands to think about the kind of norms they would like to contribute to establishing in our society.

Simon Gunning, chief executive of the Campaign Against Living Miserably

It’s got to be a good thing that brands are thinking about personal responsibility, behavioural change, masculinity and a range of tricky subjects that in the past were off the marketing agenda.

Whilst far from perfect, the Gillette ad does touch on things we strive toward at CALM: challenging stereotypes and opening up societal perceptions of what it means to be a man and celebrating multiple interpretations of masculinity. The issue with the ad though is that there’s a lot of blame and self-flagellation going on without a whole load of positivity. Most of the blokes I know are generally pretty decent, well-meaning humans. As are most of the women.

Working with partners like ITV, Adam & EveDDB, Dave, Harry’s Grooming and Topman, we’ve experienced the positive effects of well-executed campaigns addressing some the themes Gillette are aiming to confront. As a result, we’ve managed to reach more people than ever before and we’re helping more people than ever navigate life’s difficult moments and reject living miserably.

Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party

What’s hopeful about this advert is that it means Gillette knows its target audience isn’t excited by reductive ideas of masculinity. The question is whether that’s because men are starting to recognise that gender equality benefits them too, or because women make the majority of consumer purchasing decisions.

Xavier Rees, chief executive of Havas Helia

Ooh, this is a tricky one. You’ve got to applaud the intent. Toxic masculinity is a major societal problem that we all need to confront. So fair play to Gillette for having the guts to go with this brief and spend this kind of money behind it. The conversation it’s generated is proof that this is a conversation that needs to be surfaced – in the real world, beyond the confines of liberal circles. 

But… is Gillette just ambulance-chasing, or are they really invested in this cause? Because to my mind, just making an ad isn’t enough. There’s a URL at the end of the ad: Take a look. It tells us Gillette will donate $1m a year for three years to “causes helping men become role models for the next generation”. Now compare that with the media spend for this ad. And then with Gillette’s global sales (still well over $1bn). I worry they’re not really serious about this. 

It’s interesting that hardly anyone (even in the ad industry) seems to be talking about whether this is a good advertisement. Will it sell any razors? Is it creatively strong? The brief is good, some of the shots in the film are brilliant; classic Kim Gehrig. But as a whole, there’s more than a faint whiff of “pitch mood film that made it all the way through”, don’t you think? That said, I think P&G should be lauded for giving it a go. “The Talk” ad for My Black is Beautiful was inspired. I wish more companies of P&G’s scale backed their people to go after causes like this.

Roxanne Hobbs, Founder of The Hobbs Consultancy

I loved the ad on my first viewing. I felt it portrayed men in a positive and hopeful way, whilst challenging some of the negative stereotypes around masculinity.  The backlash was a surprise, I'll be honest. It would be easy to take the moral high ground here; Don't these men know that every single ad targeting women tells us that we aren't enough? Are these men so self-absorbed that they think the ad is talking to them individually? Is their masculinity so fragile that a piece of communication threatening it, forces them to reassert it vociferously (thus kind of cementing the need for the ad)?

That would be lazy and missing the point. What is needed from me is to lean in and listen. To try and understand their anger. To shut up about the female take on it. To enhance gender inclusion by creating a safe space for men and women to come towards each other and understand each other more.

I felt the ad showed men in a positive light and the images I remembered most were the positive ones - the feeling for me at the end was one of warmness to the male of the species.

Undoubtedly the motivation for this ad is both societal and commercial, as Catherine rightly points out. Gillette’s performance has declined and they will be hoping it has a long term positive impact. Indeed, despite the attention-grabbing, negative headlines, the reactions on social media seem to be overwhelmingly supportive. According to Sprout Social, between 14 -16 January, 63% of the 645,000 tweets about @Gillette have been positive and 94% of the 246,000 tweets hashtagged #TheBestMenCanBe have been positive.

At Token Man we hope Gillette continue the campaign and put additional investment behind it - this is a great first step on the journey. With controversy comes conversation and we hope it long continues, as only then will positive change for men, and everyone else, come.

If you would like to read more about the Masculinity in the Workplace conference, organised by Token Man and #HeANDSHe, the report can be downloaded HERE.


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