The recent Gillette ad, which focuses upon the concept of toxic masculinity, has generated the kind of fierce debate that is typical of our times. Many men who are more traditionally minded have kicked back against the ad’s message, arguing that Gillette is taking a more “politically correct” slant in order to reach and entice a particular demographic of males. Others find it insulting that the ad (supposedly) implies a majority of men buy into this toxic masculinity.
On the other hand, moderates and progressives have welcomed the message espoused by Gillette, saying that it is high time influential forces in our culture speak up against what seems to be a growing social epidemic. True, the company only sells razors for facial hair; but in so doing, they have a unique opportunity to address a certain stratum and pinpoint some of the flaws in thinking that have gone lamentably unchecked for years.
My purpose here is not to argue for or against the concept of toxic masculinity, how men should be perceived, or whether or not most current criticisms leveled at us are fair. Truthfully, none of these are the real problems behind the message. Instead, I want to explore a deeper, more sinister issue, one that is seen most explicitly here and has, indeed, become more explicit in advertisements in the past couple of years: the commodification of values.
In a culture fueled by consumerism, where personal identities are both shaped and seen by and through the acquisition of products, it is important for producers to attach a particular message to what they produce in order to draw potential consumers to loyalty. Through the attachment of ideology to product, the producers implicitly claim that they stand by this ideology, and by purchasing their products, consumers show themselves to be the kinds of people who espouse the ideology in question.
This is more than a clever marketing strategy or a form of rhetoric. This is Mammonism, the idolatrous worship of materialism.
But how so? By embedding the ideology in the product. In other words, any system of values, any belief can be hijacked for the sake of what is material. Other messages can be wielded as instruments to further consumption because, ultimately, consumption is what matters the most. The material, the product, is supposedly able to embody whatever ideology is espoused in the advertisement. So it is that consumption becomes the most important action we can take: to be a consumer is to be a responsible human being, to be truly human.
This is why the message of the Gillette ad is, ultimately, irrelevant. Whether or not we think it is guilty of generalizations, stereotypes, and inaccurate assumptions is not the issue. The issue is that any kind of message is espoused at all, one that tries to address a particular aspect of human identity as if products are capable of making statements about identity. Yet this is what consumerism is: a rather crude form of radical materialism that reduces people to nothing but consumers, that lures them into purchase through visceral appeals that are reduced in quality because they are made subservient to the act of consumption.
Values cannot be commodified. When they are, they cease to be ideologies and become mere instruments that further fuel consumerism. They are no longer driving forces that provide individuals with purpose and furnish legitimate social movement; they are reduced to rhetoric to form human identity as little more than a black hole, constantly devouring the products proffered to it, perpetually devolving into passivity.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to be faithful to the words of our Lord: “where your treasure is, there your heart will also be…you cannot serve God and Mammon.” We cannot be mindful of the prohibition against the worship of consumerism if we are ignorant of Mammon’s devices, ignorant of how this particular form of idolatry seeks to ensnare us — by stealing our ideologies, our values, and commodifying them so that we will buy into whatever is offered. Only as we become more mindful “purchasers” of products (is it even appropriate for Christians to refer to themselves as “consumers”?) will we be effective witnesses against the materialism of the culture in which we are called to bear witness to the liberating truth of the Gospel.
Additional Resources: If you would like to read more about the ideology of consumerism and appropriate Christian responses to material idolatry, please see the following:
Jacques Ellul — Money and Power
William Cavanaugh — Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire