The Four Hundred: Should Corporates Be Held Accountable For Commodifying Social Movements?

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On Jan. 13, 2019, personal care products company Gillette (acquired in 2005 by consumer goods corporation Proctor & Gamble) released a digital-only short film. Titled We Believe: The Best Men Can Be, the advertisement does not speak to a particular product range, or an entirely new product altogether. It is a general comment on the #MeToo movement and presents the idea that toxic masculinity is primarily responsible for sexual harassment.

The short film tries to shed light on all the behaviors that are symbolic of toxic masculinity: Boys being bullied by other boys, boys roughhousing, men in corporate offices mansplaining, tropes in cartoons and TV shows about men objectifying women, men catcalling. While it sheds light on these negative behaviors in the first half of the ad, it pivots towards the steps that men can take in the second half. To show this, the short film includes a short quote from Terry Crews’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2018, when he testified for the implementation of the sexual assault Survivors' Bill of Rights Act of 2016. It then shows men taking steps against toxic behaviors, with one man in the ad stopping the kids from roughhousing, some other men stopping other men from catcalling, etc.

The response to the ad was both negative and positive. The likes and dislikes to the YouTube link are disproportionate in favor of the dislikes. The hashtag #BoycottGillette started trending on Twitter soon enough. The main criticism against the advertisement was that the ad paints all men with a large brush that carries an accusatory tone.

In the ad’s defense, Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette brand director for North America said, speaking to CNN Business, “The ad is not about toxic masculinity. It is about men taking more action every day to set the best example for the next generation…This was intended to simply say that the enemy for all of us is inaction."

Proctor & Gamble has been behind other such campaigns before. In 2014, for their feminine products brand Always, P&G ran a campaign called #LikeAGirl, which spoke about how the phrase ‘like a girl’ is used as an insult for girls, which affects their self-confidence during puberty. In November 2018, for their women deodorants and antiperspirants brand Secret, P & G made a music video called #IdRatherGetPaid that spoke about the gender wage gap.

Proctor & Gamble isn’t the only company that has tried to tailor their campaigns in order to speak to the leading conversations of the day. As the world has grown increasingly political, and people consider the political views of the brands that produce their goods, companies have increasingly chosen sides. Footwear and apparel company Nike famously centered its campaign around blackballed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, with their ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign, while food and beverage company PepsiCo also released an ad called “Join The Conversation” that tried to speak about mass protests.

For some of these campaigns, there has been some sort of backlash. When Nike launched their campaign, with Kaepernick at its center, it also used billboards with the tagline “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The ads caused widespread anger, with some consumers of Nike products even burning some of these products like shoes and kits. Some lawmakers and school officials also tried to ban the use of Nike products from being sold in their various avenues.

However, it turned out to be a profitable campaign for Nike. Even though Nike’s share prices went down after the day of the launch of the campaign, it paid off for them in sales later. By the end of September 2018, Nike had made about $6 Billion from the campaign.

For Pepsi though, things took a different turn. It was panned across the board by many publications, and even people on social media were having none of it. It was specifically criticized for its tone-deaf portrayal of Black Lives Matter, a movement that began after the acquittal of an average neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. Pepsi was forced to take down the ad, and they offered an apology a day later, stating that they had “missed the mark.”

All these issues that corporates face is a clear sign that advertising in today’s day and age has become more integrated with the popular conversations and movements of the day. The question arises, about whether all such campaigns should be unanimously lauded, or criticized? Also, doesn’t associating a movement to a commodity essentially mean reducing the value of the movement in and of itself?

It does seem like good marketing for companies to be able to speak the language that their consumers want to hear. As it is evident in Nike’s case, they were ultimately successful in leveraging a debate that centered around one of the athletes they sponsored i.e. Kaepernick and his use of kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games to protest social inequality, police brutality and racism. For Pepsi, not so much.

This throws up interesting arguments. Even though Nike was supporting a good cause by supporting Kaepernick, their ultimate goal was to drive sales for their products. Nike itself has been accused of unethical practices in the past, like its mistreatment of workers at its factories in other nations. Doesn’t this make the customer complicit in the company’s malpractices, when they buy their products influenced by one of their positive campaigns?

Corporate companies’ end goal is an increase in sales, after all. By supporting some of their campaigns and neglecting criticisms against them at other times, customers might be buying into the hype sometimes. It is important to consider the fine print during any campaign, and choose wisely before you join in on any conversation, or believe in something.