As Samson Brown, a young black man, looks tentatively in the mirror, his father guides him as he drags a razor up the length of his neck for the first time. Brown, who was assigned female at birth, tells the camera he is at the point in his transition where he can begin shaving — and he’s at the point in his manhood where he’s finally happy.
“Now, don’t be scared,” his father tells him. “Shaving is about being confident.”
The short film by Gillette, in capturing both a universal rite of passage and a father’s loving acceptance of his son’s identity, has been hailed as groundbreaking by
LGBTQ rights organizations and is the latest in a series of provocative ads that have been rolled out by the razor company since the start of the year.
In January, the company released a searing Super Bowl ad that acknowledged its role in contributing to a longstanding culture of toxic masculinity in the United States. Created with the New York advertising firm Grey, the campaign celebrated the 30th anniversary of Gillette’s catchy slogan “The best a man can get” — but updated it for the modern era, challenging men to step up amid the #MeToo movement.
The company followed that spot with a series of boundary-pushing ads and social media posts about its Venus franchise, which included transgender and plus-size models.
Gillette’s decision to wade into such potent topics, especially in an era when many brands are wary of stirring consumer outrage, indicates the company’s willingness to position itself for a new generation, said Eric Yaverbaum, a marketing and public relations strategist at Ericho Communications in New York City.
Yaverbaum, whose firm worked on the 1994 Ikea television ad that was the first to feature a gay couple, said he has seen controversial ads written off as more provocative than substantive. But he said that wasn’t the case with Gillette’s transgender ad.
“Gillette is kind of doubling down. It’s the first time that a major men’s brand has explicitly included trans men in their advertising,” he said.
“Ultimately, brands know their markets and know how to reach them. Millennials now make up the bulk of the consumer market, and they respond positively to brands that position themselves as having values. They’re more likely to make purchases from companies whose values mirror their own.”
Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of the Boston Alliance of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Youth, said she hopes the ad, released Friday under the title “First Shave,” can have a countervailing effect against the current political climate.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Sterling Stowell, who has been with the organization since 1980, and is herself transgender. “It’s always great to see positive representation, particularly when our federal administration is directly attacking the trans community in a direct and hurtful way.”
Last week, the Trump White House proposed dropping a rule protecting transgender people from discrimination in health care, the latest in a series of moves by the administration to roll back Obama-era policies safeguarding the rights of transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people.
Kara Buckley, the head of communications at Gillette, said that while this most recent ad is explicit in its attempt to include transgender individuals, its ads are in accord with a longstanding message to the company’s 800 million male customers worldwide: Gillette helps them look and feel “their best.”
As more men face scrutiny of their actions and decisions, however, the ads demonstrate Gillette’s willingness to help define what being “the best” should actually look like.
“It’s part of the journey we’ve been on as a brand,” Buckley said. “Gillette is really synonymous with men and masculinity; we see a very clear opportunity to advance a more modern, positive vision of what it means to be a man at their best today. That’s at the heart of the communications we’re releasing. We can use our voice as a force for good, and engage consumers on topics that matter to them.”
Collectively, the ads have been shared by celebrities and have garnered over 110 million hits online. But they also seem to be having an impact on the brand’s position in the marketplace, Buckley said.
Some 65 percent of viewers in an Ace Metrix survey indicated that Gillette’s toxic masculinity spot made them more likely or much more likely to buy the company’s products. And while 42 percent of consumers said they agreed Gillette “shared their values” before seeing the ad, that figure rose to 71 percent after they watched it, according to a Morning Consult poll.
Buckley said that while most people buy razors only once or twice a year — making it hard to quickly gauge the efficacy of an ad campaign — Gillette has already seen an uptick in online sales of its shaving products.
Gillette has faced challenges from direct-to-consumer startups like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s, both of which offer razor blade subscriptions at low prices. And other razor brands have rolled out messages celebrating nontraditional types of masculinity.
Last year, Schick Hydro debuted a new campaign, "The Man I Am,” featuring men who challenge stereotypes. “ ‘Being a man’ is a spectrum, not a binary,” proclaims the campaign, which was produced with the Boston firm MullenLowe. A Harry’s ad this year also features a transgender man.
Chris Edwards, a Boston-based creative director who worked in advertising at the time of his own transition — a story he documented in his memoir, “Balls: It Takes Some To Get Some” — said the Gillette ad was a realistic representation of his own experience with shaving for the first time.
“This spot really resonated with me. I remember my first shave. I was 26,” Edwards wrote in an e-mail. “I’d asked my buddies and my dad for advice on razors and everyone unanimously told me to get the Gillette Sensor Excel (I’m totally dating myself). I bought the razor and a new can of Foamy and had at it. I still have the small scar along my jawline to remind me.”
Edwards said he celebrated the commercial “because it helps normalize and broaden the definition of what trans people are like. Brown comes across as a regular, likable average guy who just happens to have transitioned. I love that he is featured with his father, who is clearly accepting and supportive of his son.”
He said advertisements can be touchpoints that help propel shifts in cultural understanding.
Or, as Brown puts it in the ad: “It’s not just myself transitioning, it’s everyone around me transitioning.”