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Everyone knows that in the age of social media, taking a stand can put you in the line of fire. But if you want to know what it is really like to be a target for the trolls, just ask Kim Gehrig.

She was expecting a reaction to the ad she directed for Gillette, We Believe: The Best Men Can Be, released earlier this year. After all, this was the ad where Gillette, the brand of the testosterone-fuelled strapline ‘The Best A Man Can Get’, took a stand against toxic masculinity. The vignette-style ad called out a certain type of unsavoury, yet all-too-common, male behaviour.

Anyone who walked into my office at the time was confronted with vulvas pasted up all around me! People didn’t know what to think. I quite liked that. It felt brave.

But the sheer virulence of the personal attacks on Gehrig came as a real shock to her. Although she was the director, she hadn’t controlled the final edit or been consulted on the final VO script. She was also unaware of when exactly the spot would be released. So, one day, after she’d been up all night taking care of her sick daughter, she was shocked to be confronted the following morning by a stream of online abuse – and shocked to be so evidently singled out. 

Gillette – Gillette: We Believe

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Above: Gehrig's spot for Gillette, We Believe.


“I was surprised when it received such an intense backlash from certain groups of men,” says Gehrig, talking from her home in LA. “But what was most challenging was the fact that this backlash was being aimed at me personally. The project had actually been conceived, written and edited by men [it was produced out of Grey New York]. But because I’m a female director, it fitted neatly into a troll’s narrative.”

[Gillette, We Believe] had actually been conceived, written and edited by men. But because I’m a female director, it fitted neatly into a troll’s narrative.

Gehrig is hardly a shrinking violet or naive greenhorn, raging against the unfairness of it all. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, she came to London in the early noughties, initially to study, and ended up staying for 22 years. She established herself as an ad creative at Mother, and then became a commercials director at a time when there were far fewer female creatives and directors around. But, she says, she never regarded herself as being held back by her gender. 

“I didn’t really think about it – I was pretty gung-ho,” she says. “I just had a vision to direct and went for it.” She relished working in the same space as her male counterparts, who were often very supportive, and achieved considerable success doing it. Gehrig initially made her mark in music videos – for Gomez, Wylie and Primal Scream to name a few – before becoming increasingly focussed on commercials. 

Wiley – Wiley: Cash in my pocket

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Above: Wiley's Cash in My Pocket

No cake, no ribbons, 100 per cent for women

Her first ad, while still at Mother, was You Are Powerful for Amnesty International. “I composited shots of real people into stock footage of human rights atrocities, the idea being to symbolically stop them,” she says. “I still love that piece.” By the time she directed Man on the Moon, the memorable John Lewis Christmas ad, in 2015, she had properly breached the boys club.

I knew the beats I wanted to hit and the musicality, with verses and choruses introducing new ideas and characters along the way. I wanted it to keep building, overloading until it was impossible not to sing along with all the vulvas.

But much of Gehrig’s work in recent times has been a step away from the style of advertising exemplified by classic Christmas ads. Instead, it has often been about challenging archetypes and traditional gender portrayals, and smashing taboos. In Sport England’s invigorating This Girl Can campaign, she celebrated womanhood in all shapes and sizes, cellulite and all; in Libresse’s Viva La Vulva, she created a music video-like tribute to female genitalia; in the new Nike ad, Dream Crazier, she focusses on female sporting achievements; even her ads for CoverGirl lipstick, with comedian Issa Rae, riff upon women’s solidarity and the freedom to be themselves.

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Sport England – This Girl Can

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Nike – Dream Crazier

Above: Sport England, This Girl Can and Nike's Dream Crazier.


Gehrig’s skill as a filmmaker and a communicator means that her feminist voice can be a tremendously potent force when she is in full creative control. Her ability to accentuate the positivity of her message, and employ irreverent humour to support the cause, is hugely effective in confounding real life arch-conservatives and online trolls.

I became aware of the power of being true to my ‘female’ voice. I realised that I needed to make work that was true to my own identity, and allow myself to speak directly to other women.

She confirms that, despite the negative experience of some responses to the Gillette ad, something fundamentally positive has happened in her work in the past few years. “I am definitely allowed to be a more ‘female’ director now – and I don’t mean a cakes and ribbons type.” She cites the making of This Girl Can for Sport England in 2015 as “a pivotal moment” in that respect. “I remember talking to my music supervisor Pete Raeburn about whether this ad was for men too,” she says. “Pete instilled great confidence in me, saying the film was 100 per cent for women. I shouldn’t care what men thought on this one.” But even more important was the impact the commercial had among women in the UK. A year on from the release of the ad, around two million 14- to 40-year-old women were more active as a result of the campaign.

“I became aware of the power of being true to my ‘female’ voice,” Gehrig says. “I realised that I needed to make work that was true to my own identity, and allow myself to speak directly to other women.” She had also recently given birth to her first daughter and was expecting her second. “I felt a responsibility to them, also. I needed to be an example to them.”

Let’s make a vagina lip-sync video

Gehrig has been as good as her pledge. Together with terrifically accomplished work for the likes of The Gap, Uber and Lurpak, she has used this female-to-female voice again in her second ad for Sport England, Phenomenal Woman – another doc-like montage of ordinary women being active in sport, this time to a soundtrack of Maya Angelou reciting her poem of the same name. In Berlei’s Womankind (for Australian agency The Monkeys), she explores the many indignities that have befallen female breasts, by way of support, before the advent of the super-comfortable Berlei bra, with characteristic wit.

She employed the skills that made her a successful music video director, for Libresse’s Viva La Vulva, for AMV BBDO. The film starts with a naked female torso holding a conch shell in front of her crotch. The shell’s opening then seems to acquire a resemblance to lips, which start ‘mouthing’ along with the track – Camille Yarbrough’s Take Yo’ Praise. Numerous other objects are then used to represent the intimate area – grapefruit, oysters, squash, purses, woolly glove puppets, hallways, tunnels, cupcakes, origami and much more – in a wonderful parade of craft and imagination.

Libresse – Libresse/Bodyform: Viva La Vulva

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Above: Libresse Viva La Vulva.

“The creatives had some amazing imagery to celebrate the vulva, which I loved,” she says. “I remember saying I had only one idea to move it forward – to make a ‘vagina lip sync video’. I didn’t think they’d go for it, and I love those guys for jumping into such a mad idea.”

She had made a lip-dub video once before – for Wiley’s Cash In My Pocket – which she says informed this project. It began with finding the song (best known for being sampled by Fatboy Slim for Praise You) and then mapping out the film like a music video. “I knew the beats I wanted to hit and the musicality, with verses and choruses introducing new ideas and characters along the way. I wanted it to keep building, overloading until it was impossible not to sing along with all the vulvas.” 

Not taking things too seriously and allow[s] the audience in.

Gehrig worked closely with production designer Maria Lanna on thinking up which objects they could use to represent vulvas, also commissioning various artists and illustrators to contribute handmade and drawn lady parts to the project. “Anyone who walked into my office at the time was confronted with vulvas pasted up all around me! People didn’t know what to think. I quite liked that. It felt brave.”

Funny, too. The director has surprised herself with her use of humour in this and other recent ads. “I never thought I would make funny work. My instinct for Viva La Vulva and This Girl Can was to strip away any pretension. The best way I found to do that was by using humour; not taking things too seriously and allowing the audience in.”

I would like to keep exploring issues as they come into culture and find ways of making meaningful pieces of film about them.

That impulse is backed up by Gehrig’s ability to create and build emotion through the use of clever editing. When she decided last year to follow the music video-like Viva La Vulva by making a real music video, the result – for Chaka Khan’s Like Sugar – ended up revolving entirely around a wonderfully calibrated edit by Fouad Gaber, matching dancers’ moves to the track’s samples. The video ended up winning the much-prized Best Editing award at last year’s UK Music Video Awards.

“Editing is a massively important process for me,” Gehrig confirms. “I love working with my editors, like Elise Butt and Tom Lindsay.” She adds that having relocated to the US with her young family last year, the American system of directors not usually editing their own work “is more challenging for me – but I’m working through it”.

Chaka Khan – Like Sugar

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Above: Gehrig's promo for Chaka Khan's Like Sugar. 

It’s only crazy until you do it

She was attracted to her latest job, Dream Crazier for Nike, by the “extraordinary” script by Emma Barnett and Alex Romans at Wieden+Kennedy Portland. In the ad, a gamut of original and existing footage of female sporting achievement, by famous and everyday athletes alike, illustrates the words, delivered in a heartfelt voice-over by tennis great Serena Williams. It’s an emotional package. “I felt very close to what they had written – it was the perfect response to my Gillette experience,” says the director. “My job on this one was to direct imagery that would bed into the stock footage, to keep that authenticity and honesty.” 

Those qualities of authenticity and honesty shine throughout Gehrig’s work. Can she explain why these qualities, that sometimes can wane in some of us as we get older, appear to be getting stronger in her? “I think the most important thing I have learned is to not just trust my instincts, but really listen to them,” she says. “I try to take time to work out what I think is right, rather than go with the consensus.

“I would like to keep exploring issues as they come into culture and find ways of making meaningful pieces of film about them. And hopefully getting people talking and changing some minds along the way.”

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