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Gillette's Ad Is Not PC Guff, Piers Morgan – Look Beyond the Macho Stereotype

The TV presenter’s rant misses the point about letting boys be boys. The expectation of what that means must be widened

A fake image of right-wing British news anchor Piers Morgan, posted to Twitter by the @haveigotnews account, in the wake of the debate about toxic masculinity sparked by a new advertisement by Gillette, the shaving razor company owned by Proctor & Gamble. (Photo: Screenshot/@haveigotnews)

What would the advertising industry do without Piers Morgan?

Whenever they need a grumpy middle-aged man to be triggered, there he is, reliable as clockwork. He did it with Greggs’ vegan sausage roll, helping catapult their January marketing wheeze onto the front pages by complaining that it was a monstrosity. And he’s done it again with the new Gillette ad targeting toxic masculinity, which twists its familiar “the best a man can get” tagline to suggest that men can do a lot better than Harvey Weinstein and fighting in the street. It ends on a heroic note, with images of men in general and fathers in particular showing their sons a better way. But that didn’t stop Morgan dismissing it as “absurd virtue-signalling PC guff” that might drive him to get his razors elsewhere. “Let boys be damn boys. Let men be damn men,” he harrumphed on Twitter.

The ad clearly has offended some male customers who take deep exception to being lumped in with gropers and thugs. It’s certainly a far cry from the approach of women’s brands, which generally seek to woo their customers with feelgood, body-positive campaigns rather than awkward truths.

Watch the ad:

But if the aim was to generate oodles of free publicity by whipping up controversy, then like the vegan sausage roll it worked. Anything to get the brand name out there, in an era when customers fast-forward through the adverts while watching TV on catchup and use ad-blockers online. And crucially by pitting older men like Morgan against more woke millennials young enough to be their sons, it may have helped reposition an established brand that was in danger of starting to look old-fashioned as something more cutting edge. (It won’t have done itself any harm at all with mothers of teenage sons buying razor blades on their behalf, either).

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Gillette is solemnly insisting that it’s not just a stunt; that in addition to the ad it will be putting money into projects to “inspire and educate” men of all ages, and routinely challenge male stereotypes in the images and words it chooses. Like all marketing gambits, that should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. And it should go without saying that one slightly mawkish advert for razor blades is not going to make a difference to London’s knife crime problem or force a perpetrator of domestic violence to change his ways.

But the culture in which boys are steeped still matters, and it shouldn’t be left to women to make that point. This has to be an argument in which men themselves get involved, and the point where many men do start thinking about it is when they become fathers.

We’re witnessing something deeply troubling about the expectations with which too many boys are being raised, something evident not only in the #MeToo revelations or in cases like the recent rape trial involving Irish rugby players but in men’s infinitely greater predisposition to committing violent crime. And that should worry parents of boys as much as it does parents of girls.

Feminism has endlessly opened up horizons for girls, giving them permission to be anything they want to be. They are bombarded with messages about how it’s fine to be both smart and pretty, encouraged to visualise themselves in male-dominated careers and to push the boundaries of behaviour considered “acceptable” for women. That paves the way for girls who never fitted the pink princess stereotype to be far more comfortable in their skins.

But expectations of boys have remained more rigid, to the detriment both of those who don’t fit the macho stereotype and of those who will grow up to be the victims of insecure male rage. “Let boys be boys” is an excellent principle. But only if we recognise the full range of things boys are capable of being, when we let them.

Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist.

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