Following its controversial Super Bowl commercial, which took aim at toxic masculinity, Gillette released a new ad this month that seems to double down on its newfound role as an arbiter of conversations around gender. The latest ad features Toronto-based artist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown shaving for the first time. His father looks over his shoulder, giving stoic paternal advice (“don’t be scared—shaving is about confidence”) when Samson’s hand looks as if it might start shaking. It’s a sweet moment, made sweeter by the fact that Samson is among the first transgender men to be featured in a major ad campaign.
“Growing up, I was always trying to figure out what kind of man I wanted to become,” Samson says in the ad. “I always knew I was different. I didn’t know there was a term for the type of person that I was. I’m glad I’m at the point where I’m able to shave.” Unlike the Super Bowl spot, Samson’s ad is stripped down, quietly joyful and wholly divorced from tragedy—a rarity in mainstream narratives about transitioning, which Samson himself acknowledged in a Facebook post. “I’m keenly aware of how blessed I am to be able to exist in this world being supported by my family in ways that all too often many of my trans brothers, sisters, and siblings who exist outside the binary are not always as fortunate.”
The ad—shared on Facebook with the amusingly crass tagline “Whenever, wherever, however it happens – your first shave is special”—has already racked up 1.4 million views and has been shared almost 10,000 times. And it doesn’t look like it’ll be the last of Gillette’s foray into corporate activism. A spokesperson said in a statement to NBC News that the company believes “brands play a role in influencing culture and have a responsibility to use their voice to champion issues of great relevance to both the brand and our customers.”
If talk like that skeeves you out, you’re not alone. Vocal corporate wokeness always raises the question of how much of the impetus behind a campaign is actually in service of “championing issues of greater relevance” and how much of it is about helping out the bottom line. There isn’t a whole lot of public data available about how Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad affected sales; anecdotally, if you read the reviews of competitors’ razors on Amazon, there’s a sizable contingent of customers who proudly admit that they switched from Gillette because of the ad. But despite the numerous angry think pieces about the demonization of men, in late January, the chief financial officer of Gillette’s parent company said sales remained at pre-campaign level and that the company was happy with the “unprecedented levels” of media coverage.
All this makes both watching and writing about this new ad feel a little squicky. Ad campaigns like these are almost always a ploy to appeal to younger, more socially conscious consumers. Gillette even admits it. And the corporate appropriation of these stories to sell things has so diluted the discourse around movements like, say, body positivity that there’s now genuine debate about whether someone like Curvy Wife Guy is a hack or an activist. Because companies rarely take risks that they think won’t pay off in the long run, it’s easy to read these positions as postures, an investment scheme. To see an intimate moment between a trans man and his father reduced to that will always produce a bit of cognitive dissonance.
On the other hand, the ad is very sweet! And there’s no denying it will do some good—and it already seems to have. Comments on the video relay real ebullience: “This had me in tears! Plus, my trans son had the biggest smile watching it. Thank you for being inclusive!” one read. Another: “I was so afraid to read the comments and I’m crying this is amazing. Tbh my first shave was made with my husband because my dad passed away years before I started to transition last year and Thank you! This makes me feel so good this morning at work.” Beyond the joy of seeing yourself represented on a national stage, when only 16 percent of Americans personally know someone whose transgender, ads like these can give a human face to a story. It’s impossible to discount how important that is, especially when, as in the Gillette ad, those stories are told by the subjects themselves.