Nike vs Gillette: Who did it best?

Cause marketing, a type of advertising that promotes a non-profit message, has the ability to align brand values with an ethical or societal issue. Both Nike and Gillette have released ads focusing on the social injustices surrounding western feminism. Both ads carry the same undertone that reflects the 2019 stance of ending gender-based inequality. But, while the Nike ad was massively praised, the Gillette ad split opinions, evoking both applause and outrage. What most people don’t know, is that despite the very different reactions to each ad, both were directed by feminist Kim Gehrig. So, what makes these ads so intrinsically different?

First, watch them here:

The Best A Man Can Be — Gillette

Show Them What Crazy Can Do — Nike

1. Messaging

Nike’s ad focuses on emboldening women to break the mould and embrace the emotions that patriarchal society has taught them to suppress. Nike uses women and not just any women, but powerful, energetic, rebellious and diverse women, to visually communicate to its audience. Meanwhile, the voice of Serena Williams highlights the double standards and toxicity of language used to describe females. Showing real female stories, and giving women a powerful voice, allows the audience to attach their own identities and values to the brand. Nike shows that unrelenting emotion is not negative and that women can let go of societal constructions and still win. There’s a very empowering and positive message behind all the stories the ad tells.

Gillette’s ad questions traditional masculine ideologies, but also focuses on a number of topics that can all be encompassed under the feminist umbrella; #MeToo, sexual harassment, toxic masculinity, and inaction. Instead of focusing on one issue, they spread their message thin by trying to cover multiple areas without any real depth. The male-focused narrative seemingly condemns traditional masculinity, without exception. There’s an element of guilt attached to the ad’s early stories, leaving little room for the audience to emotionally adopt the aspirational ones at the end. Ununified messaging and shaming has ultimately caused confusion and stirred anger. As a consequence, the ad hasn’t resonated with a large proportion of the audience and has even stirred rejection, with many opting to boycott the brand.

2. Audience

Just like their confusing messaging, Gillette’s target audience has marketers scratching their heads. Who are they actually trying to reach? Their ad features a largely male perspective on toxic masculinity which would surely render the target audience male. However, there are many studies to demonstrate that women do the majority of household shopping, even for male consumed items. Theoretically, there is a largely female audience Gillette could resonate with. However, providing a male-only narrative and bypassing the voice of females cuts women from their audience, leaving men to defend women without actually offering women real empowerment.

Alternatively, the Nike ad is largely aimed at women. Using women to talk to women has been an element of Nike’s success. The ad could also speak to men, asking them in a subtle way to reflect on the ideas and language they project onto women.

3. Emotion

Gillette tries to evoke a sense of accountability in men for their behaviour. First, the ad pursues feelings of guilt and then ends with a sense of budding censorship between men. From a female perspective the ad raises little emotion, and from a male perspective, the message of solidarity and respect has been overlooked. It hasn’t enticed the shift in behaviour they were hoping for, in fact, it has largely sparked anger that is reminiscent of #NotAllMen.

On the other hand, Nike induces strong mirroring emotions. When the featured women are emotional, upset, furious, elated, there’s a sense of consent for women to embrace those feelings, and use them to advantage, rather than shutting them down.

Ultimately, both ads draw upon negative emotions, but where Nike succeeds in quickly uplifting that into a positive message, Gillette fails to bring the emotion out of darkness for a large proportion of its audience. This failure has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, either because they feel it’s unfair to lay blame at men’s feet or because they aren’t willing to confront the guilt the ad is drawing upon.

4. Heroes

Not everyone in the Nike video was instantly recognizable, but the majority of the footage was real, un-staged and momentous. Real women, living in emotion, triumph, and revolution. It brings a raw, real and grounding element to their ad.

In contrast, the majority of Gillette’s ad was staged. They weren’t real people, but actors following a script, all emotion is fabricated and therefore harder to relate to. By nature, we strive to be like others that we hold in esteem, we don’t want to be like everybody else. Gillette focuses on the everyday man, demonstrating the unexceptionally mundane, while Nike zoned in on the exceptional.

5. Relatability

At some point, every woman has experienced being defined by her behaviour or, at least, held back her emotion for fear of being dismissed or marginalized. Without pointing fingers, Nike gets straight to the point in addressing the toxicity of a culture that relays a different meaning to emotion based on the gender that expresses it. It’s relatable and inclusive to women from a variety of backgrounds, but it also unobtrusively tells men to moderate to their idea of women. Intrinsically, it speaks to both women and men of a culture that is increasingly unacceptable in the modern world.

In comparison, the Gillette ad, while receiving praise from some women, has caused a boycott from a large stream of men. They’ve used a male-focused ad to solidify an anti-masculine movement, whilst not considering that traditional masculinity isn’t always toxic. The representation of some of the more extreme masculine behaviours trivializes more subtle sexist behaviour. The ad has also completely bypassed the very people they should be empowering; women. The ad has removed the voice of women from the equation, denoting that without male censorship nothing will change. They attacked a male identity and disregarded the female.

6. Commitment

With approximately 2 seconds of posed footage, Nike largely relies on live clips of diverse female figures, many of which are wearing Nike. This is subtle messaging that Nike has been proactively supporting women from a diverse range of backgrounds for years. This low-key messaging makes the ad inclusively believable. On a wider scale, the ad is also in line with their other ads, such as Dream Crazy, and their inclusivity to create a sports hijab and adopt gender-neutral clothing. and resonates the messages of other Nike ads, such as the Dream Crazy ad.

However, with a deep enough look at Nike, you find cracks in their momentum. Nike is known for using sweatshops, which thanks to the like of The True Cost documentary, demonstrate the oppression of women on a disgusting scale. Even closer to home, Nike has experienced a mass of allegations of discrimination, harassment, and bias. The CEO has even pledged to address the hostile workplace.

Gillette literally smashes through one of their own past misogynistic ads, a reference to their own hand in shaping a misogynistic society. Whilst they are trying to make amends by scripting a message to call for better, it is just that… scripted. The majority of this new ad was a fabricated script, it didn’t showcase the stories of women and it didn’t directly relate to their product in the way Nike managed to pull off. In fact, Gillette continues to price women’s razor blades higher than men’s!

Overall, it feels like both are capitalizing on a valid movement, without wholeheartedly committing to helping it move forward, but Nike did it in a more tangible way.

7. Dialogue

Nike has taken stereotypical negatives used to describe women and turned them into a positive mantra — Show Them What Crazy Can Do. This enables women to share their own talents, their own “crazy” accomplishments, and successes and is essentially trying to promote a community of empowered emotionally driven women.

While the Nike ad has inspired many, Gillette’s The Best A Man Can Be ad has done more to engage conversation. Some women praised the ad for highlighting important issues while others feel it’s message was unnecessary. There are dozens, if not hundreds of media stories and articles covering Gillette’s ad, which is largely down to the divide in reactions. This range of dialogue feeds the movement towards gender equality and forces engagement between genders.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the success of each ad depends on their aim and what is being measured. It’s unlikely that Gillette will admit to any experience in loss of sales, and it may too early to judge the impact of Nike’s ad on sales. Looking at online mood, Nike’s ad appears more successful in aligning its identity with the feminist movement. Their ad hasn’t yet reached the viral levels of Gillette’s, which did more to raise conversation, even if some of it was controversial.

Activist and organizer with Greenpeace Vancouver. Writes about climate and social justice, fossil fuel fuckery, feminism and greenwashing.