Brand Storytelling: P&G Documentary Highlights LGBTQ Journey


P&G LGBTQ gay rights activist Michael Chanak

P&G’s new documentary recounts the relentless effort of Michael Chanak, a retired P&G administrative and technical worker, to get the words “sexual orientation” added to the Procter & Gamble, the global consumer packaged goods giant based in Cincinnati, released a 19-minute film this week to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the adoption of its LGBTQ-inclusive EEO policy in 1992.

As P&G’s longest commercial in its history, The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference project was produced in partnership with Great Big Story, a production company owned by CNN. And as brand storytelling goes, this short film doesn’t sugarcoat history.

As Chanak told Fast Company, “What was important for us was that it wasn’t about P&G, but more about the individuals who made it happen, and P&G just happened to be the backdrop,” he says. “Viewers are smart and won’t allow for anything that isn’t transparent, or not completely honest. They won’t tolerate tokenism. They won’t tolerate P&G slapping itself on the back in congratulations. This is a story about our struggle and this is the best way to tell it.”

The film’s synopsis:

When Michael Chanak took a job at Procter & Gamble in 1985, the AIDS epidemic was rampant. The company had found a niche with Peridex—a prescription mouthwash used to treat thrush in people suffering from HIV/AIDS. But despite selling to the LGBT community, P&G had no language protecting these individuals within the company. Chanak, who’d become a vocal gay rights activist, wanted to change that.

With years of work and help from a small but determined group of colleagues, in 1992, P&G became one of the first Fortune 500 companies to add sexual orientation to its equal employment opportunity (EEO) statement of diversity. 25 years later, that legacy lives on. This is the story of one man’s efforts to hold a corporation responsible and ultimately improve the lives of LGBT workers across the country.

As one of the world’s biggest advertisers, P&G spends more than $7 billion annually on marketing. While P&G commonly releases 30-second spots, some are as short as a few seconds for online usage, a 19-minute-plus film is a first.

“It’s a bit of a departure from how we typically tell stories,” stated Brent Miller, P&G’s associate director of beauty communications for brands such as Olay skincare and executive producer of the film. “This type of story merits that length.”

By focusing on P&G’s history, “The Words Matter” is a corporate brand campaign highlighting a pivotal moment in P&G’s history. Marc Pritchard, P&G’s chief brand officer, approved the film after being pitched by Miller, communications lead for the more than 5,000 members of the LGBTQ group at P&G.

The concept arose during a planning session for P&G’s campaign around the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, with P&G a top-level Olympics sponsor. One P&G ad featured freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, a brand ambassador for Head & Shoulders shampoo, who’s also the first openly gay action-sports athlete.

“We had a huge discussion about diversity and bias, whether gender or sexual orientation, throughout this campaign,” Miller told the Cincinnati Business Courier. “It caused us to think, ‘How did we get to this point as a company that we can have this discussion about bias or engaging in this way?’

“We recognized it wasn’t always this way,” Miller added. “At the same time, we were approaching this anniversary and we had lost this history. We didn’t know how we had got to this point 25 years ago.”

The result is “The Words Matter,” a documentary that highlights the efforts of Chanak, who’s now retired from P&G as an administrative and technical worker, and others to get the words “sexual orientation” added to the company’s EEO policy.

After coming out in 1986, Chanak found purpose in life and at work by becoming an activist. He lobbied to have P&G’s Peridex brand submitted for FDA approval to market the product to treat thrush, a common side-effect of AIDS. Four years later, P&G launched a clinical AIDS trial on Peridex.

And when Chanak and a small group of other LGBT employees lobbied upper management in 1992 to add sexual orientation to the company’s EEO policy, then-CEO Ed Artzt approved it after being swayed by a memo outlining the potential costs—retention, reputation, moral— to P&G if it didn’t.

“It’s always important to understand the past because it’s instructive,” said Chanak, who retired from P&G in 2003. “That gives you a clue to the future. The struggle isn’t over.”