Cracking the feminist psyche, and wallet


A Pantene video created in the Philippines spread rapidly online and has hit the U.S. market. (Pantene/YouTube video)

A Pantene commercial that ran on U.S. television last week skirted all the formal avenues of parent company Procter & Gamble’s typical advertising process.

Storyboards weren’t pored over in P&G’s Cincinnati headquarters. Average Americans didn’t provide feedback in consumer research groups. Media planners didn’t work for months in advance to buy advertising slots.

Instead, the one-minute commercial had been released online in the Philippines by the local Pantene unit in early November. It was never intended to reach U.S. viewers. Yet after four weeks online, the ad caught the attention of millions of Americans.

The commercial is hardly an advertisement about shampoo at all. It shows a male and a female executive going through the same workday but experiencing different gender-based stereotypes.

The commercial is the latest in a line of viral ad campaigns that tap explicitly into an emotional sense of both female insecurity and empowerment. Dove did something similar this year when it released an online video called “Real Beauty Sketches” about women’s damaged self-images. That video has had more than 60 million views on YouTube alone.

A Pantene commercial that started in the Philippines went viral in December. (YouTube.com/Pantene)

For P&G, the world’s biggest consumer-products maker, the instant global success of a video it never intended to take global forced the North American Pantene team to quickly shift gears.

When the ad unexpectedly hit a critical mass of online U.S. viewers this month, the company started talking about airing the Asian Web video in its original form on American network television. It then crunched its media planning and buying process, which normally takes months, into a mere five days — purchasing a prime-time commercial slot on short notice. Thursday, the Web experiment that started in the Philippines aired during ABC’s iconic news retrospective program “The Year.”

The ad’s unlikely, and quick, path to commercial fame is an example of how global digital trends are upending traditional corporate brand strategy.

Deb Henretta, the head of P&G Global Beauty, said that feedback from online viewers of the video encouraged the company to bring it to the U.S. market and that P&G executives felt the need to respond quickly to those calls.

The ad also shows the powerful hold that gender issues have on this cultural moment. The catch in all of these ad campaigns that have gone viral — including Dove’s, Pantene’s and a new “Fat Talk” ad for Special K cereal — is that they don’t make any real mention of their products. Instead, they present a stirring critique of gender perceptions.

“For brands to be relevant in today’s world, they need to connect on a cultural level,” Henretta said. “Making an emotional connection is critical.”

Dove's "Real Beauty Sketches" video has more than 60 million views. (YouTube.com/Dove)

Although that has always been true in advertising, the difference lies in the type of emotional connection these ads are trying to make. It’s one that feeds on women’s views of what needs fixing in society, not just within themselves.

That cultural conversation — about a woman’s 21st-century aspirations and impediments, and which barriers are internal and which external — has reached an apex this year. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg raised the questions in her best-selling book, “Lean In.”

In fact, Sandberg’s recent endorsement on her Facebook page of the Pantene ad as “one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen” was key to the ad’s quick spread in the U.S. market.

Henretta said that there had been no prior conversations between the Facebook COO and Pantene. Sandberg’s off-the-cuff support of the ad came as a surprise and made an enormous impact, Henretta said.

Deborah Small, a psychology and marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said that by entering this conversation on workplace stereotypes, the company appears to be targeting a specific consumer demographic: women with feminist ideals — and with higher earning potential. It’s a move, she said, that carries some risk.

“From a marketing perspective, it’s a little bit risky combining political statement with an advertisement,” Small said. “It’s one thing if it comes from a nonprofit, but it’s another if it comes from someone trying to sell shampoo.”

What might ultimately make the Dove ad more successful, Small added, is that it put less of its effort toward offering a social commentary and more toward creating a realistic and relatable image of women. In Dove’s video, everyday women are asked to describe their appearance to a sketch artist, and the viewer quickly realizes how poorly their self-image aligns with their natural beauty.

Both the Pantene and Dove ads have received some criticism. One of the most frequent points of contention is that the beauty companies come across as hypocritical. “It raises the question: What’s the motive here?” Small said. “It seems a bit disingenuous.”

Such videos may represent a growing advertising emphasis on infiltrating the feminist psyche. Yet they also show that companies are beginning to recognize that their customers want more socially responsible and engaged brands. A study this year by Nielsen found that 50 percent of consumers worldwide would pay more for a product if they thought the company gave back to society in some way. The willingness to pay more was even higher among younger consumers.

“We like to think this video will give us a broader platform,” P&G’s Henretta said. Tied to the new campaign, the company will pay for some of its customers to attend a women’s leadership conference in 2014.

Jena McGregor contributed to this report.

Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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