COMMENT:

Selling razor blades is a cut-throat business.

In this day and age, you need a way to stand out. Perhaps this was the thinking behind Gillette's new advertising campaign, launched to an unwavering barrage of hostility online.

The 90-second TV ad plays on current themes of MeToo and toxic masculinity and urges men to truly "be the best" they can be, a bid to breathe new life into Gillette's decades-old slogan.

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It presents us with a series of vignettes of male sins, from bullying to fisticuffs, mansplaining, objectification, and dismissing bad behaviour as "boys will be boys". It ends with a call to action: "It's only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best."

How does Gillette suggest men can be better men?

It has identified three core ideals of "respect, accountability and role modelling", which will be reflected in its advertising.

An online survey commissioned by the brand found men and women believed a "great man" would display honesty and moral integrity, and be hard working and respectful to others.

Relatively uncontroversial findings, one would suggest. Unfortunately Gillette's ad has been met by a firestorm of outrage, mostly online. The film has been viewed 16 million times on YouTube and has attracted 800,000 "down votes", against 400,000 "up votes".

One of the more polite of the internet comments underneath says: "Thanks for bringing men together Gillette and goodbye. Hello Wilkinson Sword."

"Just the type of social commentary I look for in my shaving gel," adds another.

Some pundits are declaring Gillette's ad "the worst marketing move of the whole year".

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It's certainly a bold move by Gillette: to alienate a sizeable chunk of its market, which is, let's not forget, all men.

Customers don't particularly like being preached at by their brands. Calls for a Gillette boycott from Twitter users with a handful of followers have been reported by the media, leading to accusations of "nutpicking" - that is, quoting from small, random social media accounts to help foment outrage.

It's fantastic publicity for Gillette, of course, reminiscent - on a grander scale - of the hand-wringing that greeted Iceland's bid to promote an anti-palm oil video as its Christmas ad last year.

Having it banned by the standards agency for being too "political" drove the message home in ways it could never reach with mere "above the line" ads.

In its wildest dreams Gillette can't have expected the reaction it has had. Gillette owner Procter & Gamble - one of the world's biggest advertisers, with brands ranging from Pampers to Olay - did not need to launch this campaign.

Giant corporates are risk averse by nature and they are far more likely to attract flak for inaction than the reverse.

Gillette's annual sales of US$6.6 billion ($9.7b) are under threat from newcomers such as Dollar Shave Club, but that doesn't mean it needs to stick its (closely shaved) neck out, especially when it has such a dominant market share.

Advertising is littered with examples of brands that have dared to weave political commentary into their ads.

Gillette's film is far better than the risible Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner that was pulled in 2017 after being accused of trivialising social justice campaigns. Though it's not as good as Nike's ad starring NFL star Colin Kaepernick, which also triggered boycott calls.

Some argue that firms have no business wading into such a cultural minefield. Others note that "society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues". Not my words, but those of BlackRock's Larry Fink, in his annual letter to CEOs yesterday.

Fink suggests that workers - particularly younger ones - now expect their employers to show a sense of purpose above and beyond making profit; they should also demonstrate how they can "improve society".

If Fink is right, we may see more brands weighing in on hot topics such as MeToo, whether we like it or not.

Gillette's film might have gone down a little better if it had talked up the positive qualities its research had identified, and less on the negative behaviour men are certainly capable of, but its message is inarguable.

And it may well win over millennial men who, let's face it, could be buying razors for the next 50 years.

The sheer outrage it has generated is absurd. If you really are this incensed by a razor ad, you need your head checking - and not just for stubble.