Can a new TV show about a female superhero aspire to create positive messages for girls and women as well as (or better than) a certain viral video from a feminine products brand?
In just the last few weeks, Procter & Gamble's viral sensation "Like A Girl" won the GoodWorks Effie, which is designed to recognize marketers for effectively using their platforms for "purpose-driven' campaigns. That is to say, campaigns that accomplish some social good, beyond (just) promoting the brands behind them.
As most everyone in the world of marketing and advertising knows by now, the video, for P&G's Always brand, explores the meaning of the phrase "like a girl" - and how to redefine it. It's powerful stuff, and since its debut last summer, it has generated nearly 60 million views—and has been likened to some of the best work coming from Unilever's long-running "Campaign for Real Beauty."
Right around the same time, we also saw the release of a six-minute trailer for CBS-TV's new show "Supergirl" from Berlanti Productions—the team behind "The Flash," "Arrow," and the upcoming "Legends of Tomorrow" on CW.
Based on the character in DC comics, the series follows Kara Zor-El, the preteen cousin of baby Kal-El, as she is rocketed to Earth in the moments before the planet Krypton explodes (or the surviving Argo City becomes contaminated, depending on your origin story of choice).
Through the peculiar dynamics of space-time, Kara arrives on Earth many years after Kal-El has grown up as Clark Kent, finding herself in awe of the man (and hero) he has become. As she enters her twenties, Kara must forge her own path, and decide if and how to best use her own considerable gifts to make a difference in the world.
Just as with "Like A Girl," the trailer instantly broke the Internet. In just its first week, it had generated over 10 million views—though no exclusively to fanfare.
Commentary on one side included the usual fanboy outrage, as well as criticism likening the trailer (not without merit) to some of the rom-com tropes parodied in a recent SNL spoof for a "Black Widow" movie, based on Scarlett Johansson's character in "The Avengers."
In fact, part of the ensuing online conversation was debating whether the "Supergirl" trailer was actually sexist.
On the other side: Viewers who looked past the cliches and saw something more promising. (A leaked video of the full first episode seems to have put reviews decidedly in the positive column, with some indicating the worst elements of the trailer are only minor facets of the show.)
'The World's Greatest Heroine'
One can't help but find star Melissa Benoist utterly captivating here.
But as a marketer who has written extensively about cause marketing in books such as THE ON-DEMAND BRAND and BRANDING UNBOUND; as a lifelong genre fan; and, I should add, as a husband and father, I see lots of potential for something that is not only a blast to watch, but something that can make a difference.
This optimism has a lot to do with Greg Berlanti, whose "Flash" has balanced unabashed exuberance with unexpected heart. The Season One finale is chock full of both, served with enough Easter Eggs to fill a master's thesis.
That show, based on another DC property, follows a young Barry Allen and his origins as The Fastest Man Alive. And it toys with our understanding of the character, as well as themes and story lines shaped through 70 years of mythology (including a pivotal moment in the character's history—a moment he handled to disastrous effect in the comics, and tackled in another, more painful and poignant way in the show), in compelling ways.
"The Flash" and "Supergirl" will not feature crossovers for some time, if ever, due to the fact that they air on separate networks.
But press reports indicate they do exist in the same universe. And it is not lost on Berlanti (or fans) that within the mythology, Barry and Kara are bound by a shared destiny at the center of a cataclysm that has been amply foreshadowed in "The Flash."
A Force for Good—or Not?
"Supergirl" is clearly aimed at teenage girls, far more than even "The Flash" or "Arrow," which have found footing with both sexes—and all ages.
So how can "Supergirl" do some good this fall?
1. Play Up the "Girl Power" Ethos.
This appears to be built into the equation.
Just look at the show's (brilliant) tagline: "It's not a bird. It's not a plane. It's not a man....It's Supergirl." Throw in Rachel Platten's "Fight Song," and the trailer makes an unambiguous statement. Even better: Despite hints to the contrary, word has it that despite hints to the contrary, the pilot at least avoids indicating that Kara needs a love interest to complete her.
This kind of roll model is not without precedent.
Decades ago, Wonder Woman became a symbol of female empowerment, inspiring Gloria Steinem to feature the character on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine. That was three years before Lynda Carter hit prime time as the character, in a version of the heroine pulled from one of the more prominent of DC's alternate realities. And it was 40 years before psychologist Amy Cuddy took to TED to share research with 26 million viewers that striking a Wonder Woman pose for two minutes every day can help women build self-confidence. (Read more on this amazing history here.)
This didn't happen through didactic, "After-School Special" moralizing.
It happened through the simple act of portraying a powerful force for truth and justice who just happened to be a woman.
Berlanti's first job is to entertain, not preach. But there's no reason the show can't redefine what facing danger and demonstrating heroism "like a girl" can mean.
2. Grant Viewers a Whole Lot Less "Cat"
Calista Flockhart's "Cat Grant" character could make for an outstanding rival, so long as Kara's view of "girldom" counterbalances Grant's worst stereotypes.
I'm not (just) talking about the "Devil Wears Prada"-esque elements in general—which are freaking painful to watch. I'm talking specifically about a certain (overly-long, overly-precious) moment between Kara and Cat, after Grant has dubbed Kara's alter-ego "Supergirl":
KARA: We can't name her that.
CAT: 'We' didn't.
KARA: Shouldn't she be called 'Super Woman'?
CAT: What do you think is so bad about 'Girl'? I'm a girl. And your boss. And powerful. And rich. And hot. And smart. So if you perceive 'Supergirl' as anything less than excellent, isn't the real problem you?
Kara seems to take this not as the narcissistic blather of a preening ass clown, but as words of wisdom. Or at least the trailer seems to play it that way, with Kara immediately proclaiming she's all-in.
This character will either provide Kara with a model for what not to be, or a simplistic and negative template for how powerful women establish dominance.
Berlanti's track record—along with word that the show has less of the trailer's most irksome elements—give me hope.
3. Extend the Platform
Find advertisers who don't just fill ad space with empowering commercial messages. Find partners who leverage the storytelling in ways that can be extended into digital initiatives that encourage girls to start being "super" in their own lives, through public service and/or by identifying and building on their own strengths to shape their futures in positive ways.
Which is a way of saying that while the show can't be pedagogic, perhaps extensions can.
A Real Cliffhanger
Will "Supergirl" transcend its cliche-tinged trailer to become a positive cultural influence?
Will consumer brands from the likes of P&G, Unilever and others recognize the potential of this platform, and leverage it for "purpose-driven" campaigns aimed at girls?
And will CBS avoid screwing up a show that CW would ride to long-lasting success?
Time will tell if Kara Zor-El soars high—or bites Kryptonite dust—on these and other scores.
Here's hoping it's fun finding out.
NEW: JOIN OUR LINKEDIN GROUP
Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter
Listen in on iTunes