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Even for a company as large as Procter & Gamble Co., $4.5-million (U.S.) is not exactly chump change. That’s the reported maximum cost of 30 seconds of Super Bowl airtime in the United States this year – just the third time in history that P&G opted to invest in the priciest game in television advertising. It took the plunge for a message with a Canadian connection.

P&G’s Always brand had its Super Bowl debut last night – according to P&G, it was the first feminine-care-products ad ever in the big game – with its “Like a Girl” campaign.

The commercial was a shortened version of a video that was posted online in June. The video shows people in front of a camera asked to do things such as running and fighting “like a girl.” Trying to be funny, they act out portrayals of female weakness and silliness. The same request was then put to young girls, who instead, pretended to run and fight as fast and hard as they could. The idea was to explore how language insults women, and how that can lead to a drop in confidence for girls during puberty.

The ad was a collaboration between three offices of ad agency Leo Burnett. The lead creative director, Judy John, is chief executive officer and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett Toronto. It won a coveted Grand Clio at the industry’s Clio Awards in September.

Since the summer, the video has been watched more than 80 million times online. These are the kind of numbers that marketers boast about. They are proof of the power of digital, and the way technology has lessened the need to pay for exposure through traditional media such as television.

But P&G made the decision not only to take the ad to TV, but, in a rare move for the company, to shell out millions to showcase it at the Super Bowl – a broadcast that reached a record 114.4 million viewers on NBC. (The company also paid for airtime in Canada on CTV’s broadcast, which reached 9.2 million people.)

“We said that [online] wasn’t enough. In the U.S., we had only reached half of the girls in our target, and even fewer boys and men,” said Fama Francisco, vice-president for Global Always.

Research that the company commissioned showed the ad struck a chord. Two-thirds of men surveyed said that after watching the ad, they would stop or think twice before using “like a girl” as an insult. The proportion of women aged 16 to 24 who had positive associations with the phrase rose from 19 per cent before watching the video to 76 per cent after.

It’s not unusual for a digital campaign to make it to TV. Online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook are often a testing ground for advertisers: Campaigns that don’t receive a good response can be tweaked. Similarly, a popular video may spur a marketer to spend more to ensure more people see it.

“The level of engagement that we got online encouraged us to take it to an even bigger stage,” Ms. Francisco said. “… We needed to take this message to as broad an audience as possible.”

That exposure, in turn, led to further conversation online: P&G’s tracking showed people were discussing the ad on social media far more than the company expected. In an annual poll of viewers’ favourite big-game commercials conducted by USA Today, it came second behind Budweiser’s heartstring-tugging story of a lost puppy.

Ms. Francisco said she was pleased with the results, particularly considering that Super Bowl ads rarely target women’s issues so specifically.