The ‘Social Experiment’ That Sparked a Movement

Why is it considered an insult to do things #LikeAGirl? Collaborating with Leo Burnett Chicago, Lauren Greenfield explored the question for Always with a 2014 campaign that went viral, broke barriers, won a record number of awards, and blossomed into a movement whose influence can be felt to this day in advertising, politics, women’s sports, and the world at large—from Hillary Clinton tweeting #runlikeagirl during her 2016 presidential run to Vanderbilt football player Sarah Fuller printing “Play Like a Girl” on her helmet.

The idea arose out of a multi-team effort across Leo Burnett Toronto, London, and Chicago. A series of brainstorming sessions surfaced a deprecating phrase—“like a girl”—that caught the attention of Judy John, then Leo Burnett chief creative officer, North America and CEO Canada. Research conducted for Always had noted the sharp drop in confidence that girls experience in adolescence. Part of what drives that plummet in self-esteem are the perceptions around how girls should behave, what’s appropriate, and how their very gender is a liability.

The phrase “like a girl” encapsulated those issues and provided a talking point for what would become a provocative campaign. As Judy told Ad Age, the premise was, “Why can’t it be inspiring? Why can’t it be a positive thing?”

Finding the Right Woman for the Job

She and A.J. Hassan, who at the time was VP and creative director at Leo Burnett Worldwide, developed the premise, deciding that a social experiment was the best way to bring it to life. “We believed that if we asked adult women and men to show us what it looks like to do things like a girl, the insult would come out,” says A.J. “But that young, uninhibited girls would give it their all.”

The agency then reached out to Lauren to direct the spot. “That was probably the most important decision we made,” Judy said in an interview with Contagious.com. “The team and I are big fans of her work. … She captures girls in such a real way and with a sensitive hand. She brings the humanity of what girls go through to life.”

Lauren recalls being on a project in China at the time and getting the boards, which had her photo on the cover and, under it, the words “Direct Like a Girl.” “I was intrigued by what they wanted to do,” says Lauren, whose own work exploring girl culture came out in an eponymous book in the 2000s. Knowing that the spot wouldn’t resonate if it felt staged, her next thought was: “How do we make the experiment real and almost scientific, with documentary integrity?”

Developing #LikeAGirl

What followed was an unconventional approach to what everyone involved understood to be an unconventional campaign. “I started what one would normally call a “casting” process in advertising, but it was really a large control group to do the study,” Lauren explains. “I took the opportunity to ask hundreds of boys and girls and men and women what the words ‘like a girl’ meant.” To protect the authenticity of the responses, which she filmed, she created a survey that did not disclose the central ideas she wanted to explore: “Show me what it looks like to walk like your grandpa,” or “Show me what it looks like to crawl like a baby.” Then she asked her subjects to “run like a girl.”

“It was incredible to see the number of people making fun of doing things like a girl,” she recalls. “Some were conscious of what they were doing, and others thought it was terrible but did it anyway. Some thought it was fine or funny and realized the problem in the moment of expression. But for everyone except the youngest, the negative connotations were front and center.”

Afterward, she, Judy, and A.J. spent 16 hours in a room reviewing the tapes and picking the people who would ultimately be in the spot. “I didn’t do a callback because I didn’t want to break the spontaneity by asking them questions prior to the filming, or making it seem like it was a commercial,” says Lauren. On the shoot day, the studio was set up with one background, the same for everyone, so that each person would be walking into the same “blank-slate world,” she says. Cinematographer David Morrison lit everyone beautifully to bring out the individuality of each person, without sacrificing authenticity. And there were props on hand for people to act out how to throw or bat like a girl.

Lauren used an Interrotron so the girls and boys could look directly to the camera (and be able to look the audience in the eye eventually). In the camera’s mirror, they saw Lauren, so they could communicate directly with her and she could maintain intimacy while minimizing the intimidating lights and camera setup of a set. Everyone who didn’t need to be seen by talent was blocked by black floppies so the subjects would feel comfortable expressing personal feelings freely.

“It was a magical shoot because people showed their stereotype of what the words ‘like a girl’ meant, but then they had a moment to reflect on it,” she says. “They were making this often emotional realization in real time. As we see them have the realization, the audience watching experienced it as well. Even at the time, we knew something special was happening and were often in tears on both sides of the camera. In the edit, we decided that ‘the director’ would be part of the spot to humanize the conversation so the subjects were talking to someone and not to camera.”

A Viral Sensation

#LikeAGirl premiered as a three-minute spot on the Always YouTube channel and was emailed to thought leaders and feminists, a grassroots approach that helped it go viral to the tune of 12 billion impressions. When Leo Burnett and P&G saw the response, they put a media buy against it and eventually ordered a 60-second cut that aired during the Super Bowl—marking the first time an ad for feminine protection appeared on advertising’s biggest day.

#LikeAGirl went on to win an armload of awards, including an Emmy, 14 Cannes Lions (including the Titanium Lion), seven CLIO awards, and eight pencils at the D&AD Awards. It earned Lauren the #1 Director/Most Awarded Director honor from Ad Age (making her the first woman to top this list), and Best in Show at the AICP Awards. Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Gloria Steinem, and countless sports and pop culture figures retweeted the spot, and the phrase “Like a Girl” is now a slogan of empowerment at women’s marches. The spot has since become part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and is one of the most beloved Super Bowl spots of all time.

Notably, #LikeAGirl was created by a team almost entirely made up of women. “That’s a rarity in corporate America, where men traditionally have occupied most of the top decision-making positions at many companies selling goods to women, leading to some un-relatable ads and difficult-to-use products,” noted HuffPost in a 2015 feature on the spot.

“The campaign changed the meaning of the words ‘like a girl,’” notes Lauren. “People took it on as a rallying cry and a point of pride.” Besides generating attention and winning awards, the campaign also sold product. “That was one of the exciting developments that had big reverberations in the industry,” says Lauren. “People in advertising saw that you could sell a product because of the values of the company, and sometimes without ever seeing the product.”

The Stats

250+ million views

134 awards, including a 2015 Emmy, 14 Cannes Lions 2015 (including the Titanium Lion), 7 Clios, 5 Art Directors Club awards, and 8 pencils at the D&AD Awards


Agency: Leo Burnett
Year: 2014
Chief Creative Officer: Judy John
Chief Creative Directors: Judy John and Becky Swanson
Copywriters: AJ Hassan and Angel Capobianco
DP: David Morrison
Editorial: Cutters
Editor: Kathryn Hempel


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