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Award-winning ads showcase Canadian agencies' high-profile work

On Thursday night in Toronto, a well-known campaign for Always sanitary napkins -- an emotional plea for building up girl’s confidence during puberty -- won a grand prix at the Cassies awards.

All right, advertisers, you got us. You made our hearts swell, we'll admit it, even if we squinted skeptically at your ulterior profit motives while we gulped down the lump in our throats. Emotion is one of the oldest tricks in the advertising book, but in recent years it does seem that marketers have been striking at our heartstrings more often. But does all that sentiment actually persuade people to buy into a brand?

It can. On Thursday night in Toronto, a well-known campaign for Always sanitary napkins – an emotional plea for building up girls' confidence during puberty – won a grand prix at the Cassies awards. While the industry is positively swamped with award shows, this is one that is known for focusing on business effectiveness in advertising. It showed that Always is one example where a heartfelt pitch can actually make people buy. And it can stop people from buying too: The other grand prix winner mobilized people in the United States to boycott stores that allow customers to carry guns on the premises, as another approach to changing gun policy in that country.

Both of the top winners featured Canadian-based agencies doing high-profile work in the United States.

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Always: Like a Girl

The marketing for maxi pads is usually functional. Shots of inoffensive blue liquid obscuring the realities of the human female body, diagrams of layers of absorbency, and talk of comfort and protection were the norm. They talked about the product. U by Kotex, a Kimberly-Clark-owned competitor to Procter & Gamble's Always brand, was one exception, and while Always dominated the category with more than 50 per cent share of the market, other brands, such as U, were growing faster.

The Always campaign from agency Leo Burnett Toronto asked a simple question: Why is the phrase "like a girl" used as an insult? The bigger insight is the fact that girls see their confidence drop precipitously during puberty. Because this is also the time when girls begin using the product, Always had a natural connection to the subject matter.

It got a response. Not only was the video viewed tens of millions of times online, but in the first year of the campaign, Always's market share grew 1.4 percentage points, compared with the year before, to almost 60 per cent, according to the awards case study. It sounds like a small change, but in a huge category, that's meaningful sales growth. P&G's research showed that people remembered the ad and that, over all, people's intent to purchase it grew 4 per cent. The ads also helped with brand image: Both moms and teens surveyed by P&G were more likely to see Always as relevant and appealing.

"So many brands in this category talk about what they make. It had become all about product features," said David Kennedy, Leo Burnett chief operating officer. "This dealt with the people who use the product. You can connect with consumers on an emotional level and see it move the business."

Moms Demand Action: Groceries Not Guns

The law in many U.S. states allows for "open carry" of guns in public places. Advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America has been working on the policy side of the debate since 2013, with the help of ad agency Grey Canada. For this campaign, however, it decided to focus its energies on the corporate world, putting pressure on retailers that support "open carry" laws by allowing guns in their stores in those states.

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"We had to pivot, and say: 'Where can we apply pressure to make a difference in the lives of American people?' And one of those places is businesses," said Stephanie Nerlich, president and chief executive officer of Grey Canada.

First, it organized a boycott called "Skip Starbucks Saturday." Four months later, when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz asked customers not to bring guns into its stores any longer, group members patronized the stores and praised the company on social media. In the next phase, it took on Kroger Co. grocery stores with a boycott. Ads showed a stark juxtaposition: a person with an assault rifle standing next to a person with a skateboard, for example, or carrying outside food. The ads pointed out that one of them is not allowed in Kroger stores – and it wasn't the person with the gun. Radio and video ads had staff telling people that they weren't allowed in stores with a poodle or a water gun, while customers carrying guns went about shopping unperturbed. Group members submitted photos of shopping receipts from Kroger competitors as part of the boycott.

Kroger still has not responded to the campaign, but competitor Albertsons Companies Inc., through its Safeway subsidiary, affirmed to the group that guns are not allowed in its stores. The news coverage of the boycotts also got more people involved in the group's overall efforts to advocate for policy change: During the campaign, it more than doubled its registered members, to 330,000 from 117,000.

"People will stand up on this issue," Ms. Nerlich said.

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