This Breast Cancer Ad Goes From Despair to Joy Just by Reversing Its Own Script

Getting back to that first haircut

Physical beauty may be the ultimate focus of this intense two-minute breast-cancer PSA from cosmetics chain Ulta—but the moving message it delivers is far from skin deep.

Mullen Lowe created the ad, which is meant to raise funds for research during and beyond Breast Cancer Month. Survivor Tracy DeSoto appears in the video, and narrates it. She collaborated with copywriter Tara Nelson on the palindromic voiceover, which, halfway through, reverses its initial message. Of course, that's not a new approach. This Argentinian political ad from some years ago, for example, works the same way. Still, the dramatic one-eighty is especially powerful in this PSA, mirroring how a patient's outlook can change over the course of time and treatment. 

"We found Tracy through a coworker of mine, Kara Dolce," says Christy Blain, svp, group cd at Mullen Lowe. "I worked with Kara at Publicis N.Y. At the age of 26, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has since founded Fighting Pretty, an organization that sends beauty care packages to women fighting breast cancer. Kara reached out to her email database looking for a breast cancer survivor who would like to document her first haircut post treatment for a video. Tracy responded and we knew right when we spoke to her on the phone, that her story and her journey would touch millions."

DeSoto described her hair falling out as "a moment stopped in time," Blain recalls. "She was in a business meeting and ran her fingers through her hair as many people do. A clump of hair fell out in her hand. She didn't know what to do with it, so she politely excused herself and threw her hair away in the bathroom trashcan. This was the moment Tracy decided that this disease wasn't going to define her."

The fear that a serious illness will alter our appearance is an especially powerful theme, and it's clearly on brand for Ulta, as the chain sells cosmetics and haircare products.

"For a survivor, that first haircut is a moment of pride," says Blain. "It's a symbolic step toward moving forward. It's a moment to feel like herself again. The triumph of that first haircut was a moment that Ulta wanted to elevate to the masses because frankly, it's a moment many people could relate to. Lots of people think a haircut is something that just needs to happen every six weeks. Sometimes we take the simple act of being able to get a haircut for granted."

That insight, presented here with great honesty and the right balance between trepidation and hope, helps make the spot a cut above.

Ulta is also urging consumers to share selfies of their best "pink looks" (lips, lids and locks) with the hashtag #UltaPinkOver during the month of October. For each photo, the marketer will donate $1 to Breast Cancer Research Foundation, up to $20,000.


Spot: First Haircut

Client: Ulta Beauty
CMO: Dave Kimbell
VP Brand Marketing: Shelley Haus
Marketing Director: Karla Davis
Integrated Marketing Manager- Desirae Kirchmeier
Director, PR & Social: Karen May
Social Media Manager: Sally Scarbrough

Agency: Mullen Lowe (Winston-Salem)
Chief Creative Officer: Mark Wenneker
Executive Creative Director: Jason Black
Group Creative Director: Christy Blain
Copywriter: Tara Nelson
ACD/Art Director: Chad Laughlin
Head of Production: Susanna Gates Rose O'Connell
Sr. Agency Producer: Keith Rose
Group Account Director: Anne Elwell
Account Director: Mandy Hubich
Account Supervisor: Mary Boyd Chenery
Account Coordinator: Kellie Sinkele

Production and Post Production:
Production Company: The Original Chicken Boy
Director: Mark Miks
Executive Producer: Jeff Tannebring
Director of Photographer: Mark Miks

Editorial Company: Beast, Chicago
Editor: Matt Glover
Assistant Editor: Melissa Weinmann
Telecine: Company 3
Colorist: Tyler Roth

Visual Effects: Method Studios
Flame Artists: Brandan Baki

Music: Asche and Spencer
Audio Post: Ozone Music and Sound

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@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.