On Gilette and ‘The Best Men Can Be’: A Close Shave with Cultural Capitalism — Kieran J. O’Meara

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[Bullying. The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. Toxic masculinity] Is this the best a man can get? Is it? We can’t hide from it. [Sexual harassment is taking over Hollywood] Its been going on far too long. We can’t laugh it off. [Who’s the Daddy? What I actually think she is trying to say…] Making the same old excuses. [Boys will be boys. Boys will be boys. Boys will be boys] But something finally changed. [Allegations regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment] And there will be no going back, because we, we believe in the best in men. [Men need to hold other men accountable. Smile sweetie, come on!] To say the right thing, to act the right way. [Not cool, not cool] Some already are. In ways big, [Yo man. Don’t act like this] and small. [I am strong. I am Strong] But some is not enough, [That’s not how we treat each other ok!?] because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.

The Best a man can get. It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best.

– Gillette Razors1

For some time now, a central theme of our politics has concerned the discourse surrounding ‘Social Justice’. One of the more recent names to engage with this dialogue has been the razor producer Gillette. Amidst this discourse, widely gaining mass-attention through the #MeToo campaign against sexual assault, Gillette made a conscious decision to underpin their latest advertising with a message criticising ‘Toxic Masculinity’ and its place in society. Although Gillette has previously capitalised on a masculine rhetoric in order to sell their razors – as ‘The best a man can get’ – their new campaign shifts focus to a different rhetoric, namely: ‘The best that men can be’.

In response, the campaign befell both widespread praise and condemnation en masse. Some argue that it sends the right message in creating a more just society, and others that it is another message of political correctness, assaulting masculinity. Overall, the public response has been one of micro-controversy, leading to a dip in UK-wide sales and some division amongst ourselves as to whether the campaign fronts a positive attitudinal shift, or otherwise2. Nevertheless, as interesting and important as this particular debate is, it seems to have been widely forgotten that behind this advert is a marketing campaign designed to aid the sale of razor blades. In this vein, Gillette appears to be the most recent company adding to the tone of the mode of production defining our socio-economic relations, which, of course, is Capitalism. Thus, we come to the scope of this piece – to lay out some rather rudimentary thoughts on the Gillette advert, its place in the contemporary Capitalist mode of production and our wider political discourse.

Although a thinker widely criticised for his occasionally vulgar rhetoric and potentially dogmatic (Lacanian) psychoanalytic focus, the work of Slavoj Žižek may help us decode something of Gillette’s campaign. In his 2009 work ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’, Žižek meticulously explains that the ‘New Spirit’ guiding capitalism at the consumerist level is that of so-called ‘Cultural Capitalism’:

“We primarily buy commodities neither on account of their utility nor as status symbols; we buy them to get the experience provided by them, we consume them in order to render our lives pleasurable and meaningful… Consumption is supposed to sustain the quality of life, its time should be ‘quality time’ – not the time of alienation, of imitating models imposed by society, of the fear of not being able to ‘keep up with the joneses’, but the time of the authentic fulfilment of my true Self, of the sensuous play of experience, and of caring for others, through becoming involved in charity or ecology, etc”3.

Žižek’s commentary highlights a major shift concerning our experiential relationship with commodities, the atomic foundation upon which the capitalist world appears as a vast collection of4. Today, our fetish for commodities has undertaken a new dimension, as Žižek explains, to include not only consumption for utility (as was always the case) but also consumption for a particular experiential utility – to fulfil ‘the self’.

For Žižek, the campaigns of Starbucks Coffee are an exemplary case of ‘Cultural Capitalism’ operating at its purest. Here, it is made abundantly clear that ‘It’s not just what you are buying, it’s what you are buying into’. For example, after praising the quality of the product, one ad goes on to declare that:

“But, when you buy Starbucks, whether you realise it or not, you’re buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee. You’re buying into a coffee ethic. Through our Starbucks Shared Planet program, we purchase more Fair Trade coffee than any company in the world, ensuring that the farmers who grow the beans receive a fair price for their hard work. And, we invest in and improve coffee-growing practices and communities around the globe. It’s good coffee karma… Oh, and a little bit of the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee helps furnish the place with comfy chairs, good music, and the right atmosphere to dream, work and chat in. We all need places like that these days… When you choose Starbucks, you are buying a cup of coffee from a company that cares. No wonder it tastes so good”5.

In this, Starbucks adds value to its commodities in that the consumer purchases a product from Starbucks specifically. The coffee that Starbucks markets is ‘more’ than just a cup of coffee, but an added set of ethical standards. The commodity possesses a new added quality beyond its mere usage as the thing itself; one purchases the ethic that Starbucks adopts. The customer receives an experience adding to their moral being, which in return, finances the space where such an experience can be made possible – the ‘Starbucks Aesthetic’.

Žižek discusses this to critique how charity can become a perversion when adopted by the machinations of Capitalism itself6. Starbucks is willing to market its products through the ethics of the producer, and thus justifies the added value in price the consumer must exchange to receive, and ultimately consume, the commodity. Simply put, Starbucks generates capital by marketising itself as an ‘ethical’ producer, able to generate a healthier bottom line for its shareholders by tapping into the broadest ethics of the consumer. In the neoliberal frame of the contemporary world, there are certain issues that seem to be universally appreciated; global poverty, climate change and mass-illness are but three examples of this, to openly argue in favour of these would lead to public moral discredit. In this way, Starbucks tap into the mass-ethics of the time, using their purchasing and advertising power to stand above other producers as an ethical producer, manifested clearly in the ‘coffee ethic’ they sell.

Of course, there is a benefit to this kind of action, and it is of the simplest sort – these companies bring to light certain issues and use their platform to address them. This I, and most critics, cannot, and should not, deny. Nevertheless, the perversion transpires in that it is not for sake of charity alone, but in the name of Capital. Starbucks, for the sake of continuous illustration, are prepared to twist production and consumption onto an ethically experiential plane on the back of systemic injustice, in the process disseminating its donations amongst its customers as a spectre-like added value to every transaction posited in the price of its commodities. In return, the consumer also purchases the ‘coffee ethic’, whereby they are made aware of their ethical act to ease the mass suffering the commodity is sold to alleviate. Yet, it does not end here – the consumer also purchases the milieu of the aesthetic supposedly as a reward for those who buy into this ethic, justifying an even further added value to the price of a cup of coffee. In short, whether conscious of this or not, Starbucks are able to profit from such a strategy, playing on the normative universal ethics of neoliberalism characterising the epoch.

Going one-step further than this however, Žižek’s concern is for the consequences of this, asking the question as to what is actually being commodified and re-commodified in this process. In short, by adding value for its ethical approach to the commodities it sells, it is precisely our social guilt which is subsequently commodified. By buying my morning Americano from Starbucks, as opposed to an independent coffee shop, I can pay a mysterious added fee to cheaply address my social guilt in a single transaction. In the act of buying a cup of coffee, I have, from the ease of a counter, contributed to global social justice – and it costs less than a single pound. Here, our individual guilt – something until now thought of as priceless, something money could not buy – becomes a commodity that can be exchanged and sold on the market in a round about manner. This requires no stretch of the imagination to envisage. Another coffee company becomes competitive for our guilt with Starbucks: ‘We go beyond Starbucks in both donation and impact to address poverty, providing a space for you to relax or work, and for only a small added fee!’. This justifies an even greater increase in the price of a cup of coffee and one’s satisfaction with oneself as an ethical being – attracting custom, and ultimately Capital.

Thus, Žižek launches a twofold critique concerning the effect of ‘Cultural Capitalism’ on the commodity form: (1) by suggesting that the charity some producers employ is only to appear as the ethical choice for the consumer, justifying an increase in price for this added-utility, and, (2) this results in being able to commodify social guilt, permitting those who really ‘care’ to easily outsource this for a small price. In this way, through cultural capitalism, the commodity takes on an added form; it has a use-value, in the value of an object’s use, it has an exchange-value, in the innate ‘monetary’ value of the object itself, and now, it has a cultural-value, in the value of the object’s contribution to ‘the self’. Unlike in the past, the consumer can become a moral and ethical being through the very act of consumption within Capitalist relations, which have now absorbed the ethical standards that once stood against it; yet again overcoming a barrier previously preventing the accumulation of further Capital and the reproduction of its own conditions of existence.

Beyond this however, Žižek’s most central point is that such a connection between production and charity generates a veiled ‘Capitalism with a human face’. The ethical redemption one wishes for as a consumer is absorbed into the economic relations of the Capitalist mode of production itself – the very cause of the social injustice companies such as Starbucks wish to rid us of with one hand, and yet instigate with the other. The perversion we see comes not in the fact that producers merely benefit through the accumulation of further capital by aligning themselves with fighting social injustice, but in this act masking Capitalism’s hand in forging such injustice.

To donate to charity through the auspices of Capitalism is the attempt to tackle socio-economic injustice within its own framework, whereas the truly radical and necessary notion is to construct a system whereby these injustices are impossible. Oscar Wilde best explains this, in his essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’:

“It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they [Cultural Capitalists in our case] very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible”7.

By amalgamating our social guilt as a consumer with capitalist consumption, the Capitalism we experience today has gained a human face, which contradictorily attempts to solve the injustices it has a hand in prolonging, whilst of course capitalising on this.

Although I will not use the full extent of Žižek’s critique, he exposes a phenomenon that I would like to place into the context of the Gillette Razor controversy. The phenomenon that Žižek discusses is of course a distinct one and must undergo some nuance from the situation here. Gillette is not adding to the essence of its commodities through the positing of a charitable donation, this distinguishes it from the precise phenomenon Žižek analyses. Nonetheless, Gillette, like Starbucks, has recalibrated its image to go hand in hand with a certain framework of ethics, aligning itself with the liberal principles defining our epoch in order to: (a) provide redemption for the guilt-ridden consumer as a consumer, (b) attempt to solve the injustices it creates whilst (c) continuing to produce the conditions for the accumulation of further capital, but in an increasingly ethical manner.

Gillette has done precisely this in a number of ways. To begin with, the company has utilised the current climate of Liberal Feminism to frame its values as a producer. At no point in the advert has Gillette attempted to sell its products in the traditional manner, through their utility. There are no animated diagrams of three or five blades moving ‘even closer’ to the skin, or smoothly slicing hair away, for instance. The campaign begins with its own tagline, but in the frame of a question: ‘Is this the best a man can get?’; implying that against the backdrop of sexual harassment and the manifestation of toxic masculinity, men, generally, need to dramatically change their behaviour to remove the chauvinist toxicity which tends to define what it is to be masculine. This critical line of investigation continues until the declaration that “But something finally changed”, where a montage of attitudinal changes and news pieces are overheard in the background and displayed on screen, and the campaign continues until its final line in etching out the right kind of action men should take in order to tackle systemic chauvinism and sexism in society.

This indicates to the consumer that Gillette is a brand devoted to social justice, in correcting the attitude of toxic masculinity – the belittling and objectification of women, sexual assault, and so on. To the consumer therefore, one is found to endorse the liberal ethics behind such principles when purchasing a Gillette product, or alternatively, opposing these principles by openly boycotting them as ‘virtue signalling’8. In this moment, as commodities, Gillette products receive their spectre-like added cultural value, appealing to socially conscious and guilt-ridden individuals as the only ethical choice to purchase. Some may argue that this is marketing genius by drawing in custom on an ethical register, and others that it is a marketing disaster, alienating the conservative section of society who oppose the ethics of contemporary feminism. As far as product sales go, Gillette’s financial declaration at the end of the quarter will tell all.

But what is the problem with this? Gillette profits and reproduces the conditions of Capitalism through its new incarnation, and equally utilises its platform to correct patriarchal social injustice – what is wrong with that? The ethical conundrum materialises in a threefold frame. Firstly, Gillette as a brand previously defined by ‘Masculinity’ (as ‘the best a man can get’) is now associated with combating the very masculinity it previously purported. This is not to suggest that one cannot be self-critical and adapt, but my point is that Gillette’s campaign clearly exemplifies the ‘New Spirit’ of Capitalism that we experience today – going beyond a U-turn in its company values so to associate its own commodities with combating the norms it once, perhaps unconsciously, maintained.

Secondly, we should not forget that this ethical recalibration is not merely as a gesture of good will, but the logic of Capitalism must still prevail – it must aid the accumulation of further Capital. The added redemptive cultural value posited in the commodity is to reproduce the capacity to consume ethically; combating a barrier to accumulation Gillette may have otherwise met with its past branding. This tells us that the amalgamation of social-ethics with consumption is to overcome the social principles which have appeared in the wider ether, principles which may barricade the producer from accumulating further Capital. If there is one thing that is central to the Capitalist mode of production, it is its malleability and capacity to adapt with the ethos of the times. Although a controversial text to reference, and often widely employed as a reduction of an entire body of thought, ‘The Communist Manifesto’ explains this beautifully. On the topic of Capitalism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write:

“The Bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”9

The ‘New Spirit’ of Capitalism that Žižek discusses, and that Gillette illustrates, can be marked as the embodiment of Capitalism’s remarkable capacity to revolutionise itself so to continue the accumulation of Capital. The adage of a cultural-value to the commodity form is but the nub of this revolution – one can now consume ethically, the very critique that befell Capitalism in the last century. By signalling its alignment with the Liberal values of the day, Gillette can continue to sell razors by guaranteeing to the consumer that one shaves with a razor produced by those who hold the same ethical norms.

Lastly, the greatest of conundrums we face here requires that we return to the statement made above by Oscar Wilde. Although I can declare my alignment with the central social message that Gillette are now associated with – that our society displays traits of chauvinism and sexism which need to be tended to urgently – I also would like to declare that this sentiment simply does not go far enough in achieving these ends. The campaign’s aim is essentially to deliver a message that can be entwined with the commodities Gillette sell. The primary goal of the advert is, as we have examined, to associate its commodities with the cultural-value one acquires through consumption. In the advert itself, this is encapsulated in the opening sequence – lone men staring into their mirrors, overtly postulating the social question of the day, interrogating ‘the self’. This is the campaign’s call to the ethics it straps to Gillette products. Its ends therefore are in redeeming the guilt of the consumer to further consume, and in this, overcoming a barrier to accumulation and the replication of the Capitalist mode of production; but what about the actually existing social injustice it sought to highlight and correct?

My critique is simple; the advert serves its own purposes in retrospect. It falls into the category of facile critique that Wilde critically examines. Gillette intends on bringing to our attention an ill of our society. But however, and it is a big however, this will only add to the aggravation of the difficulty to remedy society of this ill. The campaign sympathises with those who suffer, and as noble as this may be, because of its existence as an advert for ethical consumption, inherently it cannot go beyond this point – it cannot sympathise with thought to reconstruct society to a position whereby sexism and chauvinism are impossible to materialise. Its very being as an illustration of Cultural Capitalism limits its own capacity to deal with the issue it claims to address. What we need is not a round of producers chanting ‘I am Spartacus’ with a cause, benefiting from this by nature. Nonetheless, even though it may have some ethical value, bobbing on the surface because of its ethical façade, if we really wish to rid society of these traits, we must not merely claim our alignment with these causes – but we must have a sympathy for changing how society itself functions in permitting such injustices – we must have a sympathy for thinking.

I would like to present the reader with a couple of fleeting notions before they retire. The campaign reframed the company’s famous motto ‘The best a man can get’ into ‘the best men can be’. The existentialist undertones of this are undeniably screaming at the surface. What if you do not share these ethics? Does this close off consumption to those who are not guilt-ridden? What if the emergence of such Cultural Capitalism flows in another direction, whereby one has to be a particular ethical subject in order to consume? Perhaps, next, Gillette will defend itself by suggesting that those who disagree with its new shiny values are not fit to consume their products, in the same way that Hillary Clinton claimed that half of Donald Trump’s supporters were a ‘basket of deplorables’ – individuals she appeared to not want the vote of10. Perhaps the onset of Cultural Capitalism will begin to restrict consumption – producing an ‘Ollivander Effect’, where the wand chooses the wizard, the commodity picks its consumer? Even so, this is but mere speculation.

There is a final thought I would like to part the reader with. It is no secret that the advertising industry has connected razors with one word – ‘closer’. A closer shave seems to have been the single most utilised selling point for razor producers, and their advertisement stands testimony to this historical fact, Gillette included. For me, the key to grasping this campaign as an advert of a Cultural Capitalist sort came when I read the final line of the piece: “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best”. And there it is, the term we all associate with a better quality razor – ‘closer’. It is as if we can visualise a marketing department sat round a desk, a mind map on a board above them, and with the word ‘Closer’ at its centre. In reverse, the campaign is revealed to be a marketing exercise, no more than an advert utilising contemporary ethics.

In conclusion, these rudimentary thoughts I have laid out may pose more questions than it answers, or even confuse more than it informs. Therefore, in short, I shall leave you with the notion that although the onset of so called Cultural Capitalism is a tricky and contradictory phenomenon, if we want to act in the world to change our social conditions and the ills of society, we must begin to understand it in all its beauty and malice. If we want to change the character of our public realm we cannot simply wish change into existence through the means which propagate injustice, we have to recast and reconstruct the very way we think about our social organisation – it is imperative that we get even closer to new modes of thinking.

Kieran J. O’Meara (Ba, MLitt) is an independent British political theorist and blogger.

Notes:

1. Gillette (13th January 2019) ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koPmuEyP3a0 (Accessed 27th February 2019).

2. Sarah Vizard, 18th January 2019, “Gillette Brand Takes Hit as ‘#metoo’ ad backfires”, Marketing Week, https://www.marketingweek.com/2019/01/18/gillette-brand-takes-hit-as-metoo-ad-backfires/ (Accessed 27th February 2019).

3. Slavoj Žižek (2009) First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London: Verso, pp. 52-53.

4. “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’”, Karl Marx (1990) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy – Volume I, London: Penguin Classics, p. 125.

5. Starbucks Advert (May 4th 2009) USA Today, p. A9.

6. Slavoj Žižek (2009) First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London: Verso, pp.51-65.

7. Oscar Wilde (2018) “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, in Mark Martin (Ed.) In Praise of Oscar Wilde, London: Verso, pp. 1-40, p.2.

8. Piers Morgan and James Woods are but two high profile individuals to register their opposition in the public realm on these grounds. Alexandra Topping, Kate Lyons and Matthew Weaver (15th January 2019) ‘Gillette #MeToo razors ad on ‘toxic masculinity’ gets praise – and abuse’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian com/ world/2019/jan/15/gillette-metoo-ad-on-toxic-masculinity-cuts-deep-with-mens-rights-activists.

9. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1968) The Communist Manifesto, London: Penguin Classics, pp. 222-223.

10. BBC News (10th September 2016) ‘Clinton: Half of Trump supporters ‘basket of deplorables’’, BBC News,
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/election-us-2016-37329812/clinton-half-of-trump-supporters-basket-of-deplora bles (Accessed 2nd March 2019).

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