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Razor-maker Gillette deserves praise for confronting bullying, sexual harassment and “toxic masculinity” with its provocative new “The Best Men Can Be” ad campaign.

The company’s socially conscious message – already viewed millions of times on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook – just might change some minds in the #MeToo era.

But can the campaign change the image of Gillette, a renowned corporate bully in the shaving business?

Gillette is the reigning king of razors, with a roughly 50-per-cent-plus share of the U.S. market. It is the Google or Amazon of shaving products.

It didn’t get there by being Mr. Nice Guy – like the brave men shown sticking up for the bullied and defenceless in Gillette’s heart-tugging ad. No, Gillette got to where it is today by crushing upstarts with patent-infringement lawsuits, playing hardball with retailers, swallowing rivals and battling government anti-trust regulators.

For more than a century, Gillette has been the epitome of corporate masculinity, for good and bad.

The story of how the bad boy of razors rose to No. 1 began in the late 1890s. King Camp Gillette, a travelling salesman from Fond du Lac, Wis., seized on the idea of creating an inexpensive disposable razor blade. In 1904, he patented his first “safety” razor. The business took off after the First World War, when the U.S. government bought Gillette blades and razors for the entire armed forces.

The Boston-based company, owned by Procter & Gamble since 2005, never looked back. It’s original razor patent expired nearly a century ago. But over the decades it introduced a series of new razors that promised ever-closer shaves for ever-higher prices.

The company’s aggressive tactics and market clout have given it incredible pricing power. Walk the aisles of your local drug store and you’ll often find the company’s replacement blades in locked glass cabinets, alongside $200 electronic products. That makes sense when a pack of eight top-of-the-line Fusion 5 replacement cartridges will set you back about $50, or more than $6 for a disposable blade.

Replacement blades are the cash cow that drives company profits.

And that’s what makes the controversial new campaign a risky gambit for a company, whose fortunes depend on keeping men on side. Not unlike the reaction to Nike’s recent ads featuring controversial ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, much of the initial response has been negative. There has been a backlash, mostly by those who say the ad is insulting to men and full of outdated stereotypes. Thousands of them have taken to social media to vent – some posting clips showing them throwing out their Gillette products.

Dislikes to the ad on YouTube are so far outpacing likes by a two-to-one margin after nearly 18 million views.

But the lack of good alternatives could see many of these disillusioned customers eventually give up and come back.

As recently as 2010, Gillette controlled 70 per cent of the U.S. market for razors and blades. That has since slipped to the low-50-per-cent range as the company’s lofty prices attracted competition from new online discounters, including Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club. Nonetheless, Forbes Magazine still had Gillette at No. 32 in its 2018 ranking of the world’s most valuable brands.

The company’s market dominance has also attracted occasional attention from regulators. In 2009, Britain’s Office of Fair Trading investigated alleged retail markups of nearly 5,000 per cent on Gillette’s Fusion products as part of a broader inquiry into supermarket pricing policies. Apparently, nothing came of those inquiries.

In 2005, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigated complaints that P&G’s acquisition of Gillette would give the combined company too much clout in its negotiations with retailers. The FTC eventually approved the merger, ordering the companies to divest some of its deodorant and dental-care product lines, but leaving Gillette’s razor business intact.

Gillette has also filed numerous lawsuits over the years for patent infringement and violating confidentiality agreements against upstarts Harry’s, Dollar Shave Club and ShaveLogic.

The question now is whether Gillette has struck the right balance between #MeToo sensitivity and corporate masculinity.

While some customers may feel like better men when they’re shelling out $6 for a throwaway blade, others may find Gillette’s Mr. Nice Guy makeover a little lacking in authenticity.

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