Science of Success

Gillette's toxic masculinity ad earned a mixed response—but research supports the message

A screenshot of the Gillette advertisement

"The best a man can get," has been Gillette's tagline for almost 30 years. On Monday, the personal care brand released an ad that questions what that tagline means in 2019.

"Is this the best a man can get?" the narrator asks as the ad cuts to a montage of bullying, violence and sexual harassment, and references the #MeToo Movement and toxic masculinity. "The boys watching today," the narrator continues, "will be the men of tomorrow."

"We wanted to step back and take a fresh look at what it means to be 'the best' and how we continue to portray those ideals in a modern way," Pankaj Bhalla, North America Director at Gillette tells CNBC Make It via email. "Men everywhere are already working to rewrite the rules on what it looks like to be 'the best,' and how a culture can come together to make it happen."

The ad drew both support and criticism, as does the topic of masculinity in 2019. But research supports the idea that "toxic masculinity" is, in fact, detrimental to the mental and physical health of boys and men.

Just days before the release of the ad, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued new "Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men." The new guidelines highlight the unique physical and mental health risks that boys and men face, including higher rates of completed suicide, violence, substance abuse, cardiovascular problems and early mortality. They also issue a warning against conforming to traditional stereotypes of masculinity, citing years of research that links machismo to the aforementioned health risks.

"We didn't coordinate with [Gillette]," Jared L. Skillings, Ph.D., chief of professional practice for the APA, tells CNBC Make It. "The timing of this is coincidental, although, nicely so."

The report states:

"Socialization for conforming to traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males' psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict (Pleck, 1981, 1995; O'Neil, 2008; O'Neil & Renzulli, 2013), and negatively influence mental health (e.g., O'Neil, 2008, 2013, 2015) and physical health (Courtenay, 2011; Gough & Robertson, 2017). Indeed, boys and men are overrepresented in a variety of psychological and social problems."

Skillings thinks that Gillette hit the nail in the head.

"I was very impressed by [the ad]," says Skillings. "I thought that not only did it highlight some of the positive traits about masculinity, for example that men can be competitive playing sports or could enjoy barbecuing and enjoying company with other men, but it also highlighted the ways in which this traditional, or toxic, masculinity has harmed other people, including women, and in some ways, men themselves."

Others had mixed reactions to the ad. Many on social media offered praise, while others said that the add portrays men in a negative light. Still others emphasized that the brand was capitalizing on a serious topic for gain.

Others mocked the backlash itself:

Skillings says that the APA's guidelines became controversial for similar reasons that the Gillette ad did. He believes the controversy comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding about terms like "traditional masculinity" (which is used by the APA) and "toxic masculinity (which is mentioned in the Gillette ad).

"There have been a number of people that have have misunderstood our use of the term 'traditional masculinity.' That's a term in the science community, and some people have taken that to mean that somehow we are attacking traditional values," says Skillings. "Or how about 'toxic masculinity' — when that term is used, some people have understood that to suggest that all masculinity is toxic."

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This conflation of toxic masculinity and masculinity is at the heart of the confusion, he says: "Under no circumstances is the APA trying to say that masculinity itself, or men themselves, are problematic. In fact, our position is that men have a number of strengths that have a very important role, not just fatherhood, but a number of very important roles in society."

He continues, "There are also ways in which men can be unhealthy — just like women. And so it's important for us to try to highlight and accentuate the areas that are positive and try to identify and fix the ones that are not."

As for the critique that brands should not be involved in the debate of social topics, the debate continues.

"We want to help improve the health of society and our communities and I would argue that that is the responsibility of all of us, including large corporations and individuals," says Skillings. "I am personally very appreciative of the fact that they have joined this important conversation."

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A screenshot of the Gillette advertisement
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