When adults are asked to “run like a girl,” they break into a wimpy jog, all hair tosses and flailing arms. Prepubescent girls put to the same task pump their arms and give their all. So goes the latest viral ad-of-the-month, created for Procter & Gamble’s (PG) Always sanitary pads. Running like a girl, explains one tiny heroine in a red dress, means “run as fast as you can.”
To direct the three-minute video, the brand hired Lauren Greenfield of the 2012 wealth-porn documentary The Queen of Versailles. Greenfield “is a woman in a male-dominated field and tackles female societal issues,” says P&G spokeswoman Tonia Elrod. “Together, we are hopefully inspiring girls to fight negative stereotypes that impact confidence during puberty.”
Photo Illustration by Jaci Kessler and Peter B. Samuels
About a dozen drugstore brands have tried a similar tack, as online video virality becomes its own marketing metric. “A female empowerment story will take off because the trend has gone mainstream,” says Nan McCann, co-founder of M2W, the Marketing to Women Conference. “Many brands, of course, can see the value of hitching their wagons to that star.” The strategy is savvy, not only because posting online is much cheaper than running traditional commercials (though some brands supplement with TV spots), but also because of the target audience’s growing spending power. “The number of women in the U.S. earning a greater share of income than their husbands is up 16 percent in the last five years,” McCann says. There’s no data yet on whether the ads drive sales.
In April 2013, Unilever’s (UL) Dove scored the year’s largest viral hit (more than 134 million views) with its Real Beauty Sketches, which featured women surprised at how positively their looks are described by strangers. The P&G shampoo Pantene has tried three female empowerment ads since November, including Labels Against Women, in which ladies with shiny hair encounter sexism at home, at work, and in the streets. A CoverGirl video simply argued, “Girls can.” And even companies without female-centric products have gone the same route: Verizon (VZ) showed a young girl admonished for pursuing technology and science, and Snickers created the confusingly titled You’re Not You When You’re Hungry, in which starving construction dudes accost women with positive comments. “Society [should] … make way for gender-neutral introductions, free from assumptions and expectations,” one yells.
“We’ve always been telling women, ‘You can do it,’ ” says Bonnie Uhlman, co-author of Hustle: Marketing to Women in the Post-Recession World. The recent glut may be linked to Sheryl Sandberg’s advice for women to “lean in.” “Sandberg brought attention to the fact that the words we say to girls are important,” McCann says.
That hasn’t stopped bloggers from complaining that the empowerment videos are gimmicky or condescending. One Slate headline recently said: “We’re Wasting Our Best Filmmakers on Tampon Ads.” But widespread criticism still drives viewership, and Always is on track to break P&G’s social media records. The ad is honest, Elrod says, and “people like sharing that sort of thing.”