The Gillette News Cycle: How False Controversy Hinders Socially Conscious Marketing

If you ever click a news story about a “widespread controversy,” do yourself a favor and verify the claims inside. If the only angry quotations in the article come from sources like Twitteruser573037, it’s not a story worth telling.

Look no further than Gillette, which recently released a new commercial decrying toxic masculinity. It was a play on the razor company’s long-standing tagline, “The Best A Man Can Get,” beginning with shots of young boys getting in fist-fights and older men grabbing at women’s bodies. “Is this really the best men can be?” the clip posited, riffing on gender studies talking points from “boys will be boys” to 2017’s #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The powerful piece of socially conscious marketing immediately made an impact and inspired good discussion on social media, but only a specific reaction made headlines.

Typically, an advertisement like Gillette’s would only receive coverage from the likes of Adweek, Digiday, and AdAge. However, the social justice angle gave national publications a foothold. The brand was taking a stance on gender, which meant somebody was going to react negatively.

Several large news outlets published stories about the “controversy” it had kicked up. According to NPR, CNN, Business Insider, FastCompany, and Time, the internet was torn asunder by a widespread movement to boycott Gillette’s products, a siege led by untold numbers of men who felt insulted. Thing is, as journalist Agri Ismaïl pointed out on Twitter, the controversy was almost entirely fabricated.

I encourage you to investigate yourself. Click the links each news outlet provided as sources. Most of them are non-verified folks with fewer than 10 followers—users who make up what’s often referred to as “local Twitter,” or the people you went to high school with who still tweet things like, “Just enjoying a peanut butter #sandwich and watching #TheBachelor! #Yum!”

The angry customers who inspired so many articles weren’t organizing by the thousands outside Gillette’s corporate office; they were posting low-res photos of their toilet bowls, showing off the Gillette razors they tried to flush. The most high profile figure to complain about the Gillette ad online was Piers Morgan, noted conservative malcontent and beleaguered baby boomer. And man, Piers Morgan hates everything.

News outlets reporting on “controversies” by gathering three angry tweets is a toxic pattern. It’s fake news by definition, creating a story where there is none just to generate clicks. Entertainment outlets do it when they “report” on fan theories, and political pundits were guilty of commenting on a non-story like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez having danced once in college. You trace these stories back to their origin points and you find, well, nothing. Before long, once a few publishers create a narrative about a backlash, there’s a backlash to that backlash, and then we all have to spend weeks clicking through content that’s unproductive and misleading. It has to stop.

Publishers need to exercise caution when empowering individual Reddit and Twitter users, and treating them like experts. If you take a stance on any issue or topic, there will always be someone who disagrees. That quest for false balance is one of the reasons people have trust issues with the media. Think of it this way: If a media outlets like BBC had never labeled this a controversy, would Piers Morgan have even cared?

If there is a lesson for brands to learn here, it’s not to be afraid of backlash for socially conscious marketing. Advocating for a good cause, as long as it’s integral to your company’s mission, is important. If you get negative feedback, chances are you’re just hearing the voices of an angry minority that might not even be in your target audience.

As New York Magazine writer Jesse Singal wrote in 2017, “What risk-averse executives and social-media managers often fail to realize is that the subset of people who use social media do not represent the broader world, and further, that the subset of people who get extremely mad on social media don’t even represent the subset of people who use social media.” It’s all an illusion. And the more we expose the way this cheap trick works, the easier it’ll be for everyone to focus on what’s actually important.

Image by FlyMint Agency

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