The Pantene ad where a woman with thick, shiny hair encounters workplace sexism is coming to the U.S.
The spot, titled “Labels Against Women,” launched on Nov. 9 in the Philippines, but quickly went viral worldwide after Sheryl Sandberg wrote (on Facebook (FB), naturally) that it was “one of the most powerful videos I have seen.” Procter & Gamble (PG), Pantene’s parent company, has begun purchasing ad space for it in U.S., which means that if you’re one of the millions of people who’ve seen it online, you’ll probably see it again on TV.
The minute-long spot features a man and a woman doing the same things (running a meeting, giving a speech, working late) in the same professional setting while the words associated with them—”Boss” for the man, “Bossy” for the woman, for example—are displayed beside them. A melancholy cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World plays in the background. The tag line, “Don’t let labels hold you back,” flashes onscreen in the final moments, while a model does the typical shampoo commercial hair toss. P&G created the spot in response to a gender bias study it conducted in the Philippines. Judging from the commercial’s popularity, many of its stereotypes resonate with women around the world.
Of course, Pantene’s core message is true. Two different studies by New York University psychology professor Madeline Heilman, one in 2004 and another in 2005, found that women who are successful in industries usually dominated by men are often disliked, which can keep them from getting promotions and affects their success. Heilman’s studies were referenced by sociologist Marianne Cooper, a lead researcher for Sandberg’s Lean In, who lamented on the Harvard Business Review blog earlier this year that “high-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success—and specifically the behaviors that created that success—violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave.”
The commercial’s strongest examples of bias are shown at an office meeting and a podium, where it’s easy to see how men and women could be perceived differently. The other examples don’t have quite the same impact. Is a woman really considered “vain” when she washes her face? Is prancing across the street in a dress really being a “showoff?” In trying to dispel female stereotypes, Pantene may make women feel more criticized than they are.
Several feminist-themed commercials have gone viral online this year. In April, Dove released a mini-documentary that sought to highlight how women perceive themselves as less beautiful than they are. Both Dove’s and Pantene’s commercials encourage women to stop doubting themselves and accept their own awesomeness—in the end, though, both are selling beauty products. GoldieBlox, the startup toy company that makes engineering-based toys for girls, made one of the few feminist commercials that took a different approach. Instead of trying to disprove the stereotypes for a grateful, passive audience, GoldieBlox’s ad featured young girls who were already self-aware enough to reject gender stereotypes. GoldieBlox wasn’t without controversy; the commercial parodied the Beastie Boys’ Girls without the group’s permission and has since been taken offline.
Ultimately, your opinion of the Dove and Pantene commercials depends on your willingness to let a company use your personal beliefs to sell you a product. In a glass-half-full scenario, you could argue that major companies like Unilever (UN) (which owns Dove) and Procter & Gamble are tapping into the issue of gender equality because enough people finally believe in it. On the other hand, women do struggle with body image problems and workplace discrimination, and telling them to find the solution through soap or shampoo isn’t helping much. Equality and discrimination are tricky themes for advertisers to navigate. And the bigger the company, the harder it is to get things right without looking hypocritical. For example, Unilever may own Dove and its good-hearted “Real Beauty” campaign, but it also owns Axe.