On the evening of December 19, a Pantene commercial ran on US television that skirted all the formal avenues of parent company Procter & Gamble's typical advertising process. Storyboards were not pored over in P&G's Cincinnati headquarters. Average Americans did not provide feedback in consumer research groups. Media planners did not work months in advance to buy advertising slots. Instead, on November 7, the one-minute commercial had been released online in the Philippines by the local Pantene unit. It was never intended to reach viewers in the United States. And it was hardly an advertisement about shampoo at all. For brands to be relevant in today’s world, they need to connect on a cultural level DEB HENRETTA, P&G GLOBAL BEAUTY Yet after four weeks online, it caught the attention of millions of Americans. So, plans changed. Fast. The video, which shows a male and a female executives going through the same workday but experiencing different stereotypes based on their genders, is the latest in a line of viral ad campaigns that tap explicitly into a very raw, emotional sense of both female insecurity and empowerment. Dove did something similar earlier this year when it released an online video called Real Beauty Sketches about women's damaged self-image. That video has had more than 60 million views on YouTube alone. For P&G, the world's biggest consumer products maker, the instant success of a video it never intended to take global forced the North American Pantene team to quickly shift gears. A week ago, when the ad unexpectedly hit a critical mass of online US viewers, the company started talking about airing the Asian web video in its original form on American network television. It then crunched its media planning and buying process, which normally takes months, into a mere five days - buying a primetime commercial slot on major short notice. By Thursday last week, the web experiment that started in the Philippines aired during ABC's iconic news retrospective programme, The Year . The ad's unlikely, and quick, path to commercial fame is an example of how global digital trends are upending traditional corporate brand strategy. Deb Henretta, the head of P&G Global Beauty, said feedback from online viewers of the video urged the company to bring it to the US market and P&G executives felt the need to respond quickly to those calls. Yet the response to from-the-ground-up digital efforts reflects something more than consumers' increasing power to influence a brand. It also means employees in a small business unit halfway across the world can now leapfrog bureaucracy and grab the attention of their company's top leadership with a clever, small-scale digital experiment. It also shows the powerful hold that gender issues have on this cultural moment. The catch in all of these ad campaigns that have gone viral is that they do not make any real mention of their products. Instead, they present an impassioned and emotive critique of gender perceptions. "For brands to be relevant in today's world, they need to connect on a cultural level," Henretta said. "Making an emotional connection is critical." While that has always been true in advertising, the difference here lies in the type of emotional connection these ads are now trying to make. It's one that feeds on women's views of what needs fixing in society, not just within themselves. That cultural conversation - about a woman's 21st-century aspirations and impediments, and which barriers are internal versus external - has reached an apex this year. The release of Facebook chief operation officer Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In cemented the zeitgeist. So much so, in fact, that Sandberg's recent endorsement on her Facebook page of the Pantene ad as "one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen" was key to the ad's quick spread in the US. Deborah Small, a psychology and marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said that by entering this conversation on workplace stereotypes, the company appeared to be targeting a specific consumer demographic: women with feminist ideals and higher earning potential. It's a move, she said, that carried risk. "From a marketing perspective, it's a little bit risky combining political statement with an advertisement," Small said. "It's one thing if it comes from a non-profit, but it's another if it comes from someone trying to sell shampoo." What might make the Dove ad more successful, Small added, was it put less of its effort towards offering a social commentary and more towards creating a realistic and relatable image of women. In its video, everyday women are asked to describe their appearance to a sketch artist, and the viewer quickly realises how poorly their self-image aligns with their natural beauty. That, after all, is how content tends to spread online. Hardly anyone will share a video about shampoo or soap. But people will share, over and over, a video that pulls strongly at their emotions and reaffirms their views of self and the world. Both the Pantene and Dove ads, however, have received some criticism. One of the most frequent points of contention is the companies come across as hypocritical. "It raises the question: what's the motive here?" Small said. "It seems a bit disingenuous." Such videos may represent a growing advertising emphasis on infiltrating the feminist psyche. Yet they also show companies are beginning to recognise their customers want more socially responsible and engaged brands. A study this year by Nielsen found 50 per cent of consumers worldwide would pay more for a product if they thought the company gave back to society in some way. "We like to think this video will give us a broader platform," Henretta said. Tied to the new campaign, the company will also pay for some of its customers to attend a women's leadership conference next year.