January 17, 2019


A close Mad Men-era analogue to Gillette’s new ad would be this Virginia Slims ad from 1967. It starts with a woman in 19th-century clothing, staring mournfully at her feet while a sad tune plays. “It used to be, baby, you had no rights,” intones a male voice saucily. “No right to vote. No right to property. No right to the wage you earned. That was back when you were laced in, hemmed in, and left with not a whole lot to do. That was back when you had to sneak up to the attic if you wanted a cigarette. Smoke in front of a man? Heaven forbid!”

And now—what’s this?—the woman has taken out a pair of scissors and she’s cutting away at her outfit, turning it into a stylish pant suit with a bare mid-riff. She offers a coy smile, too, and a few turnabout dance moves. Then the anthem starts: You’ve come a long way, baby, to get to where you’ve got to today…” And an announcer comes on “introducing new Virginia Slims, the slim cigarette for women only, tailored for the feminine hand. Slimmer than the fat cigarettes the men smoke, with the kind of flavour women like…in a slim purse pack.” The rousing last verse: You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby. You’ve come a long, long way!

In some respects, the act of watching that ad is a voyage to a distant land: It’s not just that cigarette ads have been illegal in western countries for decades (the woman actually takes a puff—right there on TV). But the very idea that “women” smoke with a small “feminine hand” also would constitute its own sort of transphobic thoughtcrime. Nevertheless, the basic Madison Avenue impulse behind the ad is recognizable to modern eyes: There’s this cool social trend out there. Let’s present our product as part of that cool trend. In the 1960s, the cool trend was empowering women. A half century later, it’s hectoring men. In the 1960s, being progressive meant expanding the range of permissible behaviour. A half century later, it’s about imposing constraints. In the 1960’s, the puritans were the bad guys. Today, they’re the ones setting the moral agenda.

Exactly. Although then as now, James Lileks noted, with a pair of commercials for Gillette’s Venus razor for women decades apart, but then and now, the message is, “YOU ARE AWESOME YES YOU ARE, and no one gets to tell you anything.”

In contrast, Gillette has no problem hectoring the men who buy their products. As Glenn wrote, “Men are used to being treated badly on TV shows and in ads, because women control most discretionary spending. But now men are even being treated badly in ads for the products they themselves buy. Advertisers thinking they can get away with that is a pretty open expression of contempt. And the contempt is being returned.”

Related: “Yes, it’s easy to be cynical, but perhaps in these uncertain times, without realizing it, what society is crying out for is an updating of the moral codes that underpin all human endeavor by retail sages who preside over multi-billion dollar enterprises. Because they must know a thing or two about how to lead a good and fulfilling life. Right? Enlightenment you can buy in the supermarket – amazing it’s taken humanity this long to come around to it.”

As Iowahawk tweeted when Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz had the ill-conceived (and quickly discarded) notion that his clerks could lecture their customers on whatever racism they perceived that day:

At the height of his superstardom, Bob Dylan famously said, “Just because you like my stuff doesn’t mean I owe you anything.”

The reverse is true as well. (Though Gillette’s product seemed increasingly unlikable, even before they attempted corporate seppuku. I shave much more often with an electric these days, because Gillette’s blades were frequently giving me German dueling scars. Steve has some thoughts on how to significantly upgrade your “analog” razor situation.)

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