Hulu Scales, Amplifies Bespoke Installation To Mirror Female Empowerment For 'Handmaid's Tale'

A girl playfully looks at a mirror statue in New York City.

The Challenge

The first season of "The Handmaid's Tale" launched on the heels of the first Women’s March in 2017, and the show’s themes coincidentally mirrored America’s socio-political climate through Season 2 – from abortion protests to family separation. The symbolism of the red cloaks had become a regular appearance in Washington, D.C. 

As Season 3 approached, Hulu knew the show’s important themes would hit home once again. The problem was, with lower turnout at the 2019 Women’s Marches, supporters were losing steam, and so were fans of "The Handmaid’s Tale." 

Since "The Handmaid’s Tale" is Hulu’s most recognized program, agency UM Worldwide's campaign needed to do more than just drive viewership; it needed to distinguish Hulu within an extremely competitive category. And to do that, it needed to cut through culture to drive word of mouth, social conversation and, ultimately, positive brand-health measures. 

A key theme of "The Handmaid’s Tale" is that "history is written by those with power." The brand and the agency knew this was true in fiction and in reality. While exploring this with their partners at CNN, they came to a shocking realization: Less than 8% of all statues in the U.S. are of women. And even more alarmingly, women made up only 3% of all the statues in New York City, which claims to be one of the most progressive cities in the world.

They knew this would resonate with -- and disturb -- the show's fans. They needed to find a tangible way for them to not only visualize this mass disparity but also share in the experience to change history.

They knew their audience paid close attention to the news and cultural shifts, so CNN provided a good platform to make a bold statement. Together with CNN’s branded content studio, Courageous, they set out to change the inequality of public statues.

To re-energize the masses, they needed the public – and fans of the show – to see progress immediately. The branded activation was dubbed “The Shape of History” and emphasized that history is shaped by those who tell it.

The Execution

In one day on June 7, 2019, 140 new female statues were erected in New York City – the number needed to equal the existing 145 statues of men. The statues were made of mirror, allowing for anyone who walked by to see themselves reflected in and taking part in shaping history.

For Hulu, the thematic link was right on point. In the third season, D.C. is overrun by Gilead, with destroyed national monuments as symbols of the new regime. The Washington Monument was turned into a cross and the Lincoln Memorial decapitated; viewers’ reactions were emotional. Using statues as symbols of progress -- or lack thereof -- would be a good platform for fans to share in this experience.

With countless women more than worthy of their own statue, they needed to be sensitive to create a positive and inclusive experience for all. This was done in three ways: 

1. The Shape: Rather than each statue representing a specific woman, the shapes were created to look feminine yet intentionally abstract to represent all women. 

2. The Material: The statues were mirrored to symbolize the potential for today’s women to shape history. From a distance, the statues looked invisible to dramatize just how fleeting women’s representation can be, but anyone who walked closer saw themselves in the statues. 

3. The Message: Plaques tied the cultural purpose to "The Handmaid's Tale" with this message: Today in New York City, there are 145 statues honoring men and only 5 honoring women. These are the 140 missing statues needed for equal gender representation. History is shaped by those who tell it. Create the future you want to see. By The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3, now on Hulu. #WakeUp #ShapeHistory

CNN also created an interactive map with the locations of all statues in New York City, including men, women, animals and even cannons. The Hulu statues are now on tour, visiting Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco and landing in a permanent home in Los Angeles.. 

The Results 

  • Viewership is highest in franchise history with 40% more viewers than Season 2 and 50% more than Season 1.
  • New subscription growth to Hulu surpassed expectations in opening week resulting in 20% more sign-ups than previous seasons.
  • More media coverage than at any other time for the series or for any Hulu property, with over 7 billion social impressions to date.
  • A survey of attendees at the New York City activation was overwhelmingly positive with 90% of respondents rating their experience excellent or very good.
  • 80% said they would tell a friend about the installation or post on social media.
  • In October 2019, New York City commissions its first female statues for Central Park. 

Key Takeaways

Brittany Hoffman, partner for strategy at UM Worldwide, spoke with MediaPost about what the agency learned in the process of creating the campaign.

"It was a team effort across all the parties involved" -- UM, Hulu and its internal media/PR/marketing team, and CNN and Courageous, its branded content studio, she said. Weekly status calls kept the moving parts informed as to what the statues would be made of and what shape they would take, what the best location in the cities would be, how to get permits. "Once we had the details finalized, we had weekly calls into execution on when the statues would be delivered, who would meet them, set them up, post on social, which social handles to use." 

Looking back, Hoffman said that if they had "planned for success, we would have done more cities or all at once in a giant stunt across the nation or taken the statues on tour. With foresight, we might have made all of the statues a bigger event to get greater scale."

While Hulu could have gone it alone with UM Worldwide, they decided to get CNN's Courageous Studio involved because it has scale and "brings a seriousness, a news aspect to the table, a different angle. CNN was also able to build out a map showing all the male statues in New York as well as animal statues and cannons. "We layered females on top, and they were few and far between."

Hoffman also learned that this couldn't have been done in Central Park because there were too many permitting issues. Finding a location involved knowing how many statues you can get in a certain amount of square footage. And long discussions about the shapes of the statues themselves wavered between shapes of specific women and more abstract shapes so that every person could see themselves in the statues. They went with the latter.

Finally, she said, "The success of this campaign was based on that core insight of how few female statues or how underrepresented females were. It gives the campaign a lot of depth when it's born out of something that is a unique, human truth that everyone can relate to." 

This campaign won the Outdoor Media category in MediaPost's 2019 Creative Media Awards.

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