One for all and all for one? Why are people mad at Gillette?

Gillette is now enemy number one in the political world. Why? Because they made an ad about being men, and about how men can be better (by being kind to others, and by stopping other men who are being mean or hurtful to others). This is controversial, for some reason, in today’s world. Let’s dive in a bit.

First of all, I’m not among those who found the ad powerful. It’s fine to me, but even as somebody who’s known to cry at movies and while watching some of the more meaningful West Wing episodes, this ad did not spark much of an emotional response to me.

Second of all, Gillette is a Procter & Gamble company. Procter & Gamble doesn’t shy away from political activity. In fact, at least today, their website has a whole section devoted to their policies and practices that includes statements on political issues, and under their structure and governance page, an “Our Political Involvement” subsection reads:

Our political involvement is an important way to bring our purpose to life through public policy.

Guided by our Purpose, Values and Principles, P&G participates in the political process to help shape public policy and legislation that helps us fulfill our corporate purpose: delivering products to improve the lives of the world’s consumers. This engagement ensures that the interests of our employees, consumers and shareholders are fairly represented at all levels of government around the world. We are committed to being transparent about our political involvement globally.

P&G’s public policy and legislative priorities are reviewed regularly with senior business leaders and annually with the Governance and Public Responsibility Committee of the Board of Directors.

(copied from on January 17, 2019 at 9:19 AM)

Third, it’s not hard to imagine that “the best a man can get” could have a different meaning in today’s world than it had in earlier years, and that people in corporate would want to get ahead of that.

So, it’s not hard to imagine why Gillette decided to run this ad, but why the outrage? That’s what seems more interesting to me, and I think there are a handful of reasons, some, none, or all of which might be important.

We’re in a world of team sports. As George W. Bush said (in a completely different context that has nothing to do with any of this), “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” You’re on our team, or you’re not. The idea is enshrined in article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, “the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” If men are a team, and you support that team (even if you’re not a man), an attack against a teammate is an attack on us all. I imagine this plays into it, at least to some extent.

It also seems like we’re watching another example of psychological projection, when we defend or normalize things we do by attributing them to others. The person who is unfaithful in a relationship is more likely to suspect his/her partner is cheating. The drug dealers who see themselves as no different from big pharma. The snowflake who mocks others for being…snowflakes. Of course, there’s no reason for these things to line up, and of course there are few, if any, homogeneous groups out there, but let’s assume that folks on the right (especially FoxNews types) are the ones who are most upset about the Gillette ad. These are the same types who are most offended when somebody says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” And these are the same people who started calling people “snowflakes.” I imagine that this plays into it, at least to some extent.

Add to those two another idea that I find particularly interesting. I find this one interesting because I’ve struggled for years to understand why some political views seem so aligned. Why, for instance, at least until the Trump era, did believing in small government, lower taxes, and less welfare-type spending, go hand-and-hand with being against abortion? Those things have no meaningful connection to me, and, in fact, wanting less government control over lives and wanting government to make abortion illegal seem to be in conflict to me. In trying to understand this, I’ve come to believe that there is some underlying aspect of our personalities that draws us to one party’s views or another.  (By the way, I think a real “independent” is practically non-existent — folks seem to lean to one side or another, but call themselves independents in two main cases: when they’re being criticized for being partisan, or when the party they lean toward is embarrassing themselves; that’s not to say there’s no such thing as a swing voter, but the right-leaning “independents” seem to only vote for democrats who look a lot like republicans other than the D next to their name, and vice versa.) What I’ve tried to understand is what that thing inside us might be. I thought for a time that it might be a difference in value priorities. Not that republicans don’t at all value things that democrats hold dear, but that other values are more meaningful. I wondered, for a time, if the answer to certain very hard questions could predict political ideology: Would you rather your child be a bully or be a victim of a bully? Would you rather your child murder somebody or be a murderer? I think those questions challenge how important strength is to a person. If being strong is valued more than others (and I’m not making any kind of moral judgement about strength being a totally good value to have…I’m really not), then somebody would be more bothered by a loved one being the weaker one in the story than being the strong one, even though both are horrible. Is one slightly less horrible? I’ve actually asked this question in a collaboration with a colleague, and did not find it predictive. As an objective scientist, it might seem wise for me to accept that result and abandon my hypothesis, but I’m a subjective human, so I remain uncertain it was tested correctly or thoroughly enough. That was all a bit of a tangent to introduce the idea that there might be some fundamental underlying difference (that’s not good or bad, just different) that makes us feel more comfortable with one political leaning than another.

So what is the underlying thing that gets us here: perhaps it’s our likelihood of allowing an individual to define a group. It seems clear that republicans are less accepting of immigrants (the claim of being against illegal immigrants only doesn’t seem to hold up well to scrutiny). I’ve touched on this before here. Republican rhetoric has clear racist overtones (for example, read here). It seems more likely for a republican to make generalized statements about Muslims and to expect Muslims to do things that Christians are never expected to do (like this example). What if that’s part of this, and why, when somebody attacks men who are mean, men who aren’t mean feel attacked too. Is it because those who are more likely to generalize attributes of an individual to a group also are more likely to think that sloppy generalizations of a group was targeting them? When people note that more mass shootings were carried out by white men than by any other gender/ethnic group, those who fall into generalizations think that makes a statement about all white men. Let’s imagine Joe. Joe is a republican, who is happy we now say “Merry Christmas,” and falls into the boxes that we’ve discussed. So when Gillette runs an ad about men who are jerks, it creates a conflict in Joe’s mind. He’s a man, and men are all jerks (“all” because that’s what he hears, because he’s prone to generalizing). So even if he’s not a jerk, and doesn’t think of himself as a jerk, he still feels attacked. I imagine that this plays into it, at least to some extent.

Someday, maybe I’ll have a better understanding of all of this. Today it just feels silly.





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