Beware the bandwagon.

What Gillette should have learned from Aristotle

I’m not usually one to defer to the “wisdom of the ancients”. While it’s true the ancient Greeks were the first to come up with geometry, philosophy, the heliocentric solar system and the concept of the atom, they had some pretty dodgy views on the place of women, the morals of slavery and the idea you could diagnose any illness by tasting the patient’s ear wax.

One thing they did have quite a good handle on though, is what makes people tick. Aristotle’s “modes of persuasion”, for instance, have proven surprisingly resilient, and give an interesting perspective, albeit from a distance of over two millennia, on the public and media responses to Gillette’s latest ad campaign.

If you’ve not seen it, and I admit I had to find it on YouTube having been inundated with questions and opinions through social media and email (chalk one up to the marketers already), it’s essentially a product-free appeal for men to stop being complicit in sexist or thuggish behaviours among their peers; or as commentators have described it, to move away from a culture of “toxic masculinity”.

It’s not the first big, corporate, personal care brand to take a position on social issues. Dove’s advertising has, for years, espoused the message that women should stop being complicit in body shaming. But Dove’s campaign was almost universally embraced, while Gillette’s already has bandwagons of both supporters and detractors. As a man of his time, it’s unlikely that Aristotle would have leapt onto the support wagon, but he would have a good explanation for the reaction, because his three modes of persuasion: logos, pathos and ethos, remain the central underpinnings of marketing, even today.

Logos is the rational appeal, the logic within the pitch, something previous Gillette campaigns have led with, in the form of technical expositions and razor’s-edge close-ups. As with the Dove campaign, the intended rationale behind Gillette’s message is hard to fault. But the message received is not always the message intended, especially if the pathos and ethos don’t fit.

Pathos is the emotional appeal, and here’s where the campaign starts to divide opinion. For some, the emotional tone of the ad is positive and inspiring, but for others it’s patronising, and for some, offensively preachy. Dove’s adverts were positive and subtle, focusing on the healthy “normal” with plus-sized models, and relying more on editorials and commentators to advocate the urgency of its underlying message. In contrast, Gillette’s new campaign cuts between unambiguous depictions of “bad” and “good”, with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer, depicting far more men behaving badly than well. Its pathos is punchy and polarising.

But at the risk of over-Greeking the argument, I think Ethos is the campaign’s biggest Achilles Heel. Ethos is credibility; it’s the character, the ethics, the authenticity of the personality making the pitch. It’s the essential third leg of the marketing stool, it’s why we have celebrity endorsements, why we listen to people we believe are experts, why we value peer recommendations above all others. Gillette’s ethos has always been one of power and performance, in its products and sports sponsorship. Gillette is the brand that brought us the 2016 Fusion advert, that showed how even real men, in this case boxers smashing each other in the face, can also have sensitive skin.

Brand evolution is a marathon not a sprint, and I would love to see Gillette genuinely build some credibility in the ethical space; to see them put skin in the game beyond a single ad, a single web-page, and a single commitment to donate $1m (less than 0.2% of its global advertising spend) to charity. The increasing awareness and strengthening opinion around sexual harassment, bullying and abuse, is long, long overdue. And that men, particularly those of us in positions of influence and authority, need to play a central role in bringing change about, is undeniable. But equally undeniable is that bandwagons are attractive for brands and commentators alike, even if it means abandoning ethos in an attempt to jump on board.

No doubt P&G’s market research will have told them that the advert’s undergraduate, new-to-shaving target market, will have fewer conflicting associations and will respond positively to its unsubtle tone. No doubt they also banked on a social media controversy driving eyeballs in a demographic that traditional broadcasting can’t get near. And both of those predictions could well turn out to be true.

But whether it drives more sales than it loses, or indeed changes any attitudes, remains to be seen. Because based on Aristotle’s timeless marketing KPIs, Gillette’s campaign was always going to struggle to get the desired outcome, whichever of those outcomes it was actually aiming for.