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Procter & Gamble Co.’s feminine hygiene brand Always uses the term “social experiment” to describe its newest ad campaign. The three-minute video, which has received more than 20 million views on YouTube since its debut one week ago, tackles the stereotype of doing things “like a girl”

Advertising to girls and women is not just advertising any more. Now it is one big "social experiment."

That's the term Procter & Gamble Co.'s feminine hygiene brand Always uses to describe its newest ad campaign from agency Leo Burnett. The three-minute video, which has received more than 20 million views on YouTube since its debut one week ago, tackles the stereotype of doing things "like a girl." People at a studio in Los Angeles were told they were participating in either a research panel or a casting call for a new TV show. They were then asked to perform actions such as "run like a girl" or "throw like a girl."

Older participants tended to fall back on stereotypes, running with their arms flapping or mimicking a weak throw. Young girls who stepped in front of the camera did the same actions more earnestly. The director then discussed participants' reactions with some, and encouraged them to reflect on the disparaging way the phrase is used.

The tone of the campaign has similarities to that of Unilever-owned Dove, which has been marketing its brand for more than 10 years under the banner of the "Campaign for Real Beauty." In an ad last year, it examined how girls lose their confidence, by showing women running from a camera or covering their faces, juxtaposed with shots of little girls mugging joyously for a camera.

And Dove in recent years has also had a "social experiment" feel to its marketing. Last year, the brand won numerous awards for an ad that asked women to describe themselves to a forensic sketch artist, then showed how unflattering those sketches were compared to those based on other people's descriptions of the same women.

This year, the brand produced an ad showing women who were told they were testing out a patch that would make them feel more beautiful, and were asked to record how their confidence changed while wearing it. At the end of that experiment, a doctor reveals there was nothing in the patch. The companies that make these ads say they are doing it to expose serious issues around how women are taught to see themselves as lesser.

"The experiment also demonstrated clearly how a little encouragement can go a long way in changing girls' perceptions of what it means to be a girl," said Joyce Law, senior communications manager for P&G Canada.

The idea that brands need to stand up for big issues has gained traction in marketing circles. In 2012, Nike Inc. released an ad with female athletes talking about how they overcame the discrimination they faced when they were starting out, with young girls mouthing some of their words. Last year, Pantene Philippines explored stereotypes about women (being called "bossy" as opposed to being seen as the boss) in an ad that was promoted on social media by Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg. Earlier this year, lounge wear and lingerie brand Aerie won free publicity with a public pledge not to Photoshop the models in its ads.

But is advertising – whether for beauty products or a line of maxi pads, panty liners and wipes – the right platform for discussions of social issues such as women's self esteem?

"Things have changed so much in marketing. In my career, there was a time that a brand was a brand … today, people want to buy brands that are aligned with their values," said Sharon MacLeod, vice-president of personal care for North America at Unilever, who has worked on the Dove brand for years.

But with the rising trend comes the risk of consumer skepticism.

The Dove "patches" ad came under fire for making its female participants look foolish. Gawker Media's website Jezebel called it the "most bullshit yet" of Dove's commercials.

In April, comedy group Above Average – part of the Broadway Video production company behind Saturday Night Live – released a parody of Dove's tactics. In it, women were encouraged to look at a "mirror" with a man in a gorilla suit on the other side. While emotional music played, a woman in a lab coat told them, "You must hate what you see when you look in the mirror."

The spoof video ended with the slogan: "Dove. You fell for our weird psychology experiment and it showed you you're not actually a hideous monster, so where's our Nobel Peace Prize or whatever?"

Karen Howe, senior vice-president and creative director at One Advertising, has noticed an increase in the number of ads attempting to tackle issues surrounding women's self-worth.

"There is a collective mining of women's insecurities," she said. "There is a certain sense of brands using it for their own convenience, while hanging their hats on the idea that they're trying to be helpful, socially."

"I wonder if in their intent to empower, they are actually reinforcing some of these messages."

There is a real business motive at play here: Brands want to appeal to a group that controls or influences 80 per cent of purchasing decisions in North America.

"I feel like there's been a barrage of it of late," said Jo-Ann Munro, creative director at advertising firm Marketel's new division focused on women, Marketelle. "Everybody's going for that little piece of the heart. … It's this funny little sweet spot that brands are playing in. It's a fine line between making people feel worse about themselves and that notion of empowerment."

Despite their misgivings, both Ms. Munro and Ms. Howe said they found the Always ad interesting, and that these kinds of campaigns can be thought-provoking and empowering when done well.

"The Unilever people talk about a brand with a point of view. In the history of advertising, that's relatively unusual," said John Deighton, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School who has researched the Dove campaign over the years.

As digital media allow for longer videos and more expansive and emotional storytelling, it's becoming less unusual.

"It's the emotional door to women as opposed to the rational one. It's about high-level appeal," Ms. Munro said. "There's definitely a sensibility that's been awakened."

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