ARTICLE

Gillette’s New Ad Asks: “Is Toxic Masculinity the Best a Man Can Get?”

A new ad has everyone talking about gender norms. Here’s how you can bring that conversation to your students.

10.5 million views. In three days. Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” advertisement has become a flashpoint for discussions about masculinity even before its official premiere during the Super Bowl. The first time I watched the video, I teared up. It wasn’t because I thought all gendered violence would stop; it was because I felt like I was watching a sea change that took decades to arrive.

A commercial like this one—which overtly calls out toxic masculinity and demands better from men—would never exist if it weren’t for hundreds of women testifying and speaking publicly and millions of people working to help us see that everyone is better off when the restraints of gender norms are removed.

Secondary teachers have an opportunity to use this two-minute ad to engage students in discussions about gender norms for men and how they affect everyone.

It’s important to remember that this “short film” is an advertisement meant to gain attention for a product, a context that requires us to complicate students’ reading of this text. But that complication isn’t necessarily all bad—the context is part of what makes the advertisement so powerful. It deserves attention for its extraordinary shift away from the tone of most ads that sell “men’s” products, especially ads that run during the Super Bowl. 

Any educator using this ad for a lesson should consider taking the next step and actually share Gillette’s statement about the ad, which says in part:

It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man. With that in mind, we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and coming communication and reflecting on the types of men and behaviors we want to celebrate. We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.

While we cannot accept this statement uncritically and forget that the company is trying to sell a product, it’s worth noting that a company using their corporate responsibility to shift attitudes about masculinity is an important piece in the larger cultural puzzle of recognizing, addressing and ultimately ending toxic masculinity. 

Here are some ways teachers can use the two-minute ad in their classrooms. 

 

Analyzing Arguments 

Because the ad is so short and provocative, it can quickly become a classroom text for analysis. When students are learning how to craft and support their own arguments, they can study the rhetorical maneuvers of opinion pieces about the ad—and consider the purposes and audiences for these pieces. Responses by Todd Starnes and Jill Filipovic, for example, critique and celebrate the advertisement, in turn. Shared with students, they offer models of some common arguments about toxic masculinity. Read along with the ad and Gillette’s statement, these models can help students craft their own arguments. As you engage them in discussion, you might also pose these questions for students to consider:

  • What does this decision by such a major brand say about consumer culture? Is Gillette being a thought leader or making a good economic choice?
  • What has the cultural response been to the ad so far, and what does that say about where we are as a society when it comes to our perceptions of masculinity?

 

Studying Language 

Though only a few words change in Gillette’s turn from its original slogan, “The Best a Man Can Get,” to its new slogan, “The Best Men Can Be,” the small differences give students an opportunity to consider how just a few words can radically change a message. Here are some questions you might ask:  

  • Why does it matter that the original ad used the singular man and the new ad uses men? (They can think about the traditional, more singular idea of masculinity versus a broader, more pluralistic view of masculinities. They might also notice that there is more of a sense of community in the new slogan—which is also reflected in the ad's critique of bystander mentality.)  
  • How does the verb change from get to be shift Gillette’s message about masculinity? (Students might note that the first considers masculinity as something one attains—or develops by attaining—and the second conveys gender as something that a person is always forming.)  

 

Comparing and Contrasting Ads  

The popularity of this ad mirrors responses to the 2004 Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Students can watch the Dove ad and compare and contrast the two, keeping in mind that one is 15 years older than another. From there, they might discuss how they think these two messages shifted the corporate world and how ideas about bodies and beauty may have expanded because of these ads. 

Show the ads again and ask students to come to their answers based on race, as the Dove ad especially focuses on white female beauty. Students could then consider the Gillette ad and see if it does anything different concerning race. If you want to take the study a step further, students could review the corporate statements for each ad campaign.

 

Considering History  

Students may not know why the ad title begins with “We Believe.” You could introduce them to Tarana Burke and the #MeToo movement. (As always, when sharing stories of trauma or assault, be mindful of the potential for triggering.) As the founder of the movement, Burke explains it in detail in her TED Talk, which works well for secondary students. 

 

Considering Masculinity in Your Curriculum

As a high school English teacher, I loved teaching Lord of the Flies. At the time, I didn’t have the gender vocabulary that we have now, language that helps us discuss toxic masculinity and its repercussions. The ad can engage students to consider the real-world implications of, for example, the gender norms the boys on the island face. Any narrative that engages with coming of age into one’s gender would benefit from using this ad to get students thinking more about their own experiences as they come into their gender.

This ad encourages all of its viewers to think about how masculinities are constructed and about the consequences of a culture of toxic masculinity. At the moment, it’s an excellent touchstone for students to use to begin deeper considerations of gender. Maybe someday we’ll look back and see it was also something more—a marker, perhaps, of a turning point in the way we think and talk about gender.

Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.