Gillette recently ignited a fire on social media with it’s the Best Men Can Be themed advertisement. The name is, of course, best on Gillette’s classic advertising line—”the best a man can get.” As would be expected, the likes of Piers Morgan and James Wood responded harshly. In the case of Morgan, he accused Gillette of virtue signaling, fueling the “global assault on masculinity” and called for us to “Let boys be damn boys” and to “Let men be damn men.” Woods merely noted that Gillette was jumping on the “men are horrible” bandwagon and said that he was done with using Gillette products. Other men were not upset by the ad at all, noting that its message appeared to be “Don’t be a jerk. Don’t raise a jerk. Call out other men being for jerks.” And, of course, some pointed out that Gillette was just trying to sell more razors and shaving cream. While I will not attempt to see it through the eyes of those who hate it, I will address the philosophically interesting aspects of virtue advertising.
While some loath the content of the advertisement, it is advancing a set of values, advocating certain behavior and encouraging men to serve as role-models by acting on those values. It is, of course, doing this to sell razors and shaving cream. From a moral standpoint, this raises two questions. The first is whether the values being advanced are morally good. The second is whether the motivation is relevant.
Since I generally follow Aristotle’s virtue theory, I think that men should be the best they can be. Intuitively, this seems morally commendable—that men should be the best they can be seems to be morally obvious and the burden of proof would rest on those who would deny it. The real dispute is over what it is to be the best.
Each society and subgroup has its own notion of what it is to be the best man and the easy answer is to just go with what the society or subgroup asserts. The obvious problem with is approach is that such relativism collapses into subjectivism and that collapses into moral nihilism (“morally best” refers to nothing). This puts an end to moral discussion, so one must accept moral objectivity to enable the discussion to progress.
While the response to the ad from Morgan and Woods would seem to suggest that the values it advances are wicked, this is not the case. The values endorsed seem to be classic virtues, such as respect and courage. For example, one man rushes to stop a group of boys who are attacking another boy—which is a virtuous act. As another example, one man is shown talking another man out of harassing a woman—which is also a virtuous act. To treat others with respect and to protect those who need protection certain seem to be what good men should do, hence it would be odd to condemn the ad. But perhaps the critics did not take issue with these values, but with another aspect of the ad.
While the ad ends with displays of virtuous behavior, it begins by showing men and boys behaving badly, such as talking over a woman at a business meeting and laughing at sexual harassment in a sitcom. It does make sense that the like of Morgan and Woods would be angry at this—they see it as an attack on men aimed at showing that all men are terrible. The problem with this interpretation is the ad obviously does not say that all men are horrible. As noted above, the second part of the ad presents men acting ethically. As such, the ad simply says the obvious: some men are awful, some are good. Its message is also quite benign: don’t be awful, be the best you can be. There seems to be nothing here to take issue with, unless one thinks that behavior such as bullying and sexual harassment are morally fine. In that case, the problem lies with those who think this and not with the ad.
Some might object to being preached at by a company trying to sell razors and shaving cream by virtue signaling. This is a reasonable objection and people are free to not watch the ad or complain about this technique. However, the motivation of the company is irrelevant to the correctness (or incorrectness) of the claims and values in the ad. To think otherwise would be to fall victim to an ad hominem—that the motivation of someone making a claim makes their claim false (or true). Even if Gillette is cynically trying to sell more razors and shaving cream and could care less about men being their best, the claims and values presented in the ad stand or fall on their own. Naturally, it is reasonable to condemn or praise the folks at Gillette based on their motives, but that is another ethical issue distinct from whether some men behave badly and whether being the best men means acting in the ways presented in the ad. I certainly agree that if Gillette is cynically exploiting values it does not endorse, then that would certainly be morally dubious behavior—but, once again, this is not relevant to whether the claims and values expressed are right or not.