When Gillette released their new ad on January 13, I’m sure they hoped to catch people’s attention. That is part of the goal of advertising, after all. What they perhaps didn’t anticipate was how overwhelmingly negative the reactions would be. In light of the #MeToo era, Gillette crafted an ad in which they accept culpability for their brand’s role in influencing some well-known negative aspects of male culture. The hook of the ad asks, “Is this the best a man can get?”—a riff off their 30-year-old tagline, “The Best a Man Can Get.” From there, it proceeds to show male abuses, not just of women, but of the weak and vulnerable; it then turns those abuses on end to demonstrate how men can stand up and be defenders in each situation instead.
Justice, kindness, and humility. These are virtues available to all, through common grace. The Gillette ad calls out the need for these virtues in our society, it showcases where they have been sorely lacking, and it lays out the belief that men can be leaders in these areas.“We believe in the best in men,” the ad goes on to say as it shows the reverse of each abuse. “Men need to hold other men accountable,” actor Terry Crews says in a news clip. Accountable to do what? The voiceover continues: “To say the right thing, to act the right way,” encouraging that while some men are already doing the right thing, there’s still a lot of work left to be done to ensure that the next generation learns to grow into good men.
Responses to the Gillette ad have run the gamut from the benign (sorting people into Hogwarts Houses based on their reactions to it) to the vitriolic (accusations that Gillette is promoting the message that all masculinity is toxic), but one thing is clear: people do not like feeling as though a commercial has a preachy message for them. Perhaps where Gillette stumbled a bit is in the heavy-handedness of the ad, or its serious tone—funny ads are often easier to swallow than serious ones.
In reality, ads always have some sort of message tucked away within them that’s only tangentially related to the product—it’s how products are sold. Whether it’s commentary on hunger and identity a la “You’re not you when you’re hungry” (Snickers), the unbridled capitalistic consumerism of “I want it all—I want it now” (Dr. Pepper), or fear mongering of the unpredictable and the everyday in “Mayhem” (Allstate), you could name any product with a commercial and break it down to a core “pain point” and how the product is going to fix that problem or fulfill that desire. The issue with the Gillette ad, therefore, is not that it contains a message. It is what the message is, how we interpret it, and whether or not we are willing to accept it. Gillette’s ad, for our particular cultural moment, has become a litmus test for our vision of masculinity.
What is the difference, then, between “The Best a Man Can Get” and “The Best Men Can Be?” and is the second, revised, tagline a superior message to the first? Motives of the company and quality of the ad aside—what is it saying?
The first half of the Gillette ad, which has been primarily responsible for the negative responses, demonstrates what we might call Machiavellian prowess. What is the “best” a man can get? Domination—over his peers, over women, over his home, over those “less than” him. This sort of prowess requires a certain degree of ruthlessness, physical strength, calculation, and disregard for the rights and needs of others. It is an elevation of self because the focus is on what can be personally obtained for one’s own benefit. The ad highlights these behaviors as unequivocally bad—presenting them as objectively sinful to a world too often steeped in grey.
I’m tempted to say that somewhere along the way in the great American experiment, Machiavellian prowess replaced virtue, that that’s what’s gone wrong in America. But truth be told the tension between the two has been with us from the start. As a nation, we pride ourselves on being founded on Western culture and ideals as handed down to us from the great classical civilizations. But greatness is as complicated as our national history, and the unholy union of God, gold, and glory lingers with us still. As the first half of the ad demonstrates, for a man to have prowess over his “lessers” has for too long been a cultural benchmark in America. If we are honest about our national history, we must admit that this attitude extends to our founding, kneaded like the yeast of sin into the moral fabric of what makes us great.
But virtuous living, as shown in the second half of the ad, calls us to put others first—to defend the weak and give hope to the hopeless—and virtuous living is hard work. It’s a choice to live that way every day, and a process. In showing how things can go from bad to good through virtuous daily choices (“in ways big and small,” as the ad says) and by stressing that they “believe in the best in men,” Gillette puts forth a message reflecting the truth of the struggle of daily sanctification. As the company explains in their new mission statement: “Our tagline needs to continue to inspire us all to be better every day, and to help create a new standard for boys to admire and for men to achieve… Because the boys of today are the men of tomorrow.”
So what is good? In Micah 6:8, the prophet writes:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Justice, kindness, and humility. These are virtues available to all, through common grace. The Gillette ad calls out the need for these virtues in our society, it showcases where they have been sorely lacking, and it lays out the belief that men can be leaders in these areas. Micah 6:8 virtues are the best men can be. This should be a message Christians (and all people) can celebrate.
The widespread negative reactions to the Gillette ad—many of them from Christian circles—reveal that maybe we are still a people who would rather conquer than humble ourselves in the face of our sin. The elevation of American ideals over Biblical ideals has encouraged us to think that what a man can “get” is a greater measure of his character than what he can, and should, be. Perhaps what a man can get is a more appealing message to Americans raised on a mixture of entitlement, bootstrap-ism, and manifest destiny—particularly when they are told that manliness looks like prowess rather than virtue. But this message is a perversion of the sort of people the Bible calls men to be.
Rather than fearing or decrying an advertisement that promotes a message of masculinity that calls out sinful behavior as toxic, we should champion it. Christians must also be for a vision of masculinity that is not reliant on physical strength, sexual prowess, or power—a vision that is as inclusive as a God who chose the weakest brother to be the second king of Israel, a God who chose a man with a lisp to challenge Pharaoh and lead his people out of slavery, a God who valued the life of crippled Mephibosheth. “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
The Gillette ad in this moment of heated cultural divisiveness can be a reminder to us that the outward trappings of “manliness” are not what God counts as good. “The Best a Man Can Get” is reflective of American virtues at their worst, but “The Best Men Can Be” more closely reflects Godly virtues. Christians can and should believe in the best men can be because that is the standard God calls men to.