The Gillette commercial that has divided opinion and provoked boycotts of the firm by oversensitive men is not the worst ad I have seen for razor blades. That honour belongs to Savage, a brand that in the 1980s tried to make the cut in an Indian market dominated by Topaz and Wilkinson Sword. The copywriter assigned to it emphasised the product’s unfortunate name by proclaiming, “The Dawn in Every Man’s Life is Touched by the Savage Experience,” which must be the worst tagline I have ever encountered. Since even the most foolishly macho male does not fancy giving himself a dozen nicks each morning, the Savage brand did not last much longer than one of its blades. Before disappearing, it extended its philosophy to ancillary products, like a “rugged” and “virile” aftershave, which employed as its model a gorgeous Jackie Shroff, perhaps the brand’s only worthwhile legacy.

Gillette entered the fray not long after I started shaving, and I have stuck with it through that combination of satisfaction and laziness, which counts as brand loyalty. Over a century ago, King Gillette (King was his first name) pioneered the business of replaceable blades, supplanting cut-throat razors that needed regular sharpening on leather strops. His greater invention was the idea of offering one product cheap, even at a loss (in his case, the razor), in order to then unload expensive accessories (the blades). Anybody who has bought a low-cost printer and shelled out ridiculous amounts for ink has experienced the power of Gillette’s freebie marketing.

To keep its edge once rival firms replicated its product and revenue model, the Gillette Company undertook a technological arms race. Look, here is a cartridge instead of an individual blade. Sliding razors in and out is so much simpler than screwing and unscrewing. Now you have two blades instead of one. We’ve added a colour strip that fades so you know when to buy new blades. All right, it would be better suited to toothbrushes, since blades make painfully clear they are past their best, but what is the harm in trying to shave a few days off the process? And what about these microfins, aren’t they groovy? Why stop at two blades, let’s try three. How about three blades plus a lubricating stripe? We’ve made the razor head flexible, so it adjusts easily to the contours of your face. Let’s eliminate the four-blade stage and jump straight to five. Oh yes, tack on a trimmer blade at the back to make six.

Gillette played that game expertly for decades, but by the six blade stage customers realised that more edges did not necessarily provide a closer or more comfortable shave. New brands like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club bit into its market share, and the hipster embrace of beards sent sales spiralling downwards for the first time. In the past, the company had reached out to sportsmen, those non-violent gladiators, to promote its products. But had it sought a replacement for Roger Federer, Thierry Henry and Rahul Dravid from the current Indian test cricket team, it would not have found a single unbearded specimen. The firm must have been relieved that the clean-shaven veteran Mahendra Singh Dhoni joined the squad for the Gillette One Day Internationals and won the Man of the Series award.

So, it was from a place of desperation that Gillette produced a commercial which relates to the phrase “me too” in more ways than one. It tries to ride the current backlash against male behaviour ranging from condescending to abusive that often does not lend itself to resolution through conventional channels. It also seeks to copy the success of recent commercials using edgy, political subject matter, such as the Nike ad narrated by Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback blackballed by the National Football League for protesting police violence aimed at African-Americans by refusing to honour the American National Anthem in the traditional manner.

The Gillette ad.

The Nike ad

Why have right-wing American men, who despise Kaepernick for what they see as his unpatriotic and ungrateful stance, not been offended by Nike the way they have by Gillette? To get to the answer, let us consider the greatest depiction of the advertising industry on screen or in print, the television series titled Mad Men. The show’s main protagonist, Donald Draper, is a talented copywriter and a charismatic individual, but a man out of step with the 1960s, the era in which the series is set. As colleagues adapt, change jobs, hairstyles and ideologies, Draper remains stuck in a cycle of hard drinking, infidelity, and repentance, and a parallel loop of abandoning the world in which he thrives, or seeking to abandon it, but never doing so definitively.

In the show’s final season, Draper passes through the darkest night of the soul, trying and repeatedly failing to create human bonds as he travels across the country to California. There, he enters a retreat offering a path to transcend society’s materialism. While sitting cross-legged and chanting Om at the edge of the Pacific, his face breaks into a smile, as if he has reached a moment of realisation. The scene then cuts to a Coca Cola commercial before the final credits roll, leaving us to assume he will return to New York and advertising yet again, and create the iconic television spot we have just viewed.

The ending of Mad Men encapsulates how advertising at its best can tap into our most profound impulses and conflicts, even as it offers a false resolution to them. The sixties generation, seeking a deeper reality, is offered the Real Thing in a bottle, sold through an ad evoking the inclusive, multi-ethnic, back-to-nature spirit of the time. The Nike ad with Colin Kaepernick draws on similarly deep sources, and moves audiences as a result, while the Gillette commercial is a collection of profoundly uninteresting people communicating the banal message that men should behave better and stop fights when they can. Nike hired a man who sacrificed his career for supporting Black Lives Matter, and sought no racial proportionality in an ad unapologetically dominated by Black athletes. Gillette took the mealy-mouthed, politically correct route, striving for ethnic balance while also having black men stop white guys from doing bad things to women twice within two minutes. How would supporters of the ad have felt if that equation had been reversed? The tokenism in those depictions was worsened by the contemptuously tiny donations the company made to charities associated with the cause of improving men’s behaviour.

Though I think it is silly to boycott Gillette or its owner Proctor & Gamble over this misstep, as many men are doing, I am not surprised the video is climbing the charts of YouTube’s most disliked uploads. Audiences understand that preachy advertising is always disingenuous, because the product being sold has little to do with the cause. They will play along if the yarn being spun is inspiring enough, frequently overlooking their political stances in the process. However, if the generic hypocrisy of a moralising commercial is compounded by its distinctive nature, they feel patronised and disrespected, much like that woman in the boardroom in the Gillette ad.

The Nike ad.