I see red: why tampon/pad brands need to up their advertising game

You notice you are feeling a little bit moodier than normal. Irritable and a bit down, with a hot feeling in your chest that you cannot extinguish. The smallest things annoy you. Your flatmate forgets to wash their dishes, someone forgot to buy milk, you drop something on the floor twice in a row, this goes on for a few days. And then you feel it, the dull ache deep in your lower stomach, which becomes more and more intense like that feeling you get from a dead arm, but transferred to your lower abdomen. You’re also breaking out and you feel bloated, fatigued and genuinely sick. Then, as you curl up on the couch in foetal position with a hot water bottle nursing your tummy, cursing mother nature for dealing you this monthly slap in the face, you switch on the television, and what do you see? An attractive lady in a pad/tampon ad, looking at the camera, sensually even, muttering something about absorbency as she proceeds to strut down the street in a mini skirt, and you think to yourself, ‘I hate this woman’. Period.

It’s not actually that I hate her, she’s just an actor doing her job. It’s more that I feel frustrated that she’s twirling about looking happy when that’s not how I feel at all. It seems like one big lie.

It’s never fun when aunt Urma or aunt Flo come to visit, when you fall to the communists or when your crimson tide comes around. These are some of the most common symptoms of PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) – that rear their ugly heads between ovulation and the start of menstrual bleeding: bloating/weight gain, fatigue/lack of energy, headaches, cramps, aching muscles and joints, low back pain, breast swelling and tenderness, food cravings, sleeping too much or too little, constipation or diarrhoea, sad or depressed mood, irritability, anxiety.

While it’s different for every woman, most of us have at least a few of these at once, and certainly having someone chuck a packet of pads at you isn’t going to fix that, like it seems to in this ad:

For years brands like Libra, Stayfree and Carefree (the latter both owned by Energizer holdings) have made it seem as if when women purchase the right pads or tampons, their symptoms will disappear and they can go on with ‘normal’ life. Women can easily go back to yoga class, the gym, the swimming pool, work or whatever. And sure, many of us can and obviously I can only speak for my own experience and that of my friends, but it can still be unpleasant.

The ads also, for the most part, never mention the word “bleed”, like it’s taboo. And for years, all the absorbency tests in these ads have used this sci-fi-esque alien-like blue liquid poured onto a pad to prove its absorbency, which just looks weird. As we will see further down, things are beginning to look up, however. At least overseas.

Maybe it’s not even necessarily the brands which are to blame (though they can help change public perception). The public seems to find tampon advertising that is outside the ‘norm’ offensive too. A Carefree ad, for example, was one of the ten most complained about ads of last year, which spurred six complaints from the public to the Advertising Standards Authority. It depicts a girl searching the internet to see if she had inserted a tampon correctly, which the complainants deemed “too explicit” saying it should have been shown later in the evening so children couldn’t see it, and that young women watching it with men would be insulted.

The complaints board said the scene was not likely to cause serious or widespread offence to viewers and the complaint was not upheld (phew!).

Then there was also ‘vagina discharge-gate’, of which the ASA received 18 complaints in 2012.

I reached out to my Facebook community to see what friends thought on tampon/pad advertising.These young women are all roughly between the ages of 23-30, part of the target demographic for these products.

Kari says: “I think it’s interesting how pads and tampons are advertised as the only options because they are a one-use product and can thus generate more profit (i.e. planned obsolescence) cf. mooncups or other products that are better for you and can last for years.”

Grace says: “Yeah the ads should reflect the true bloodiness of shark week. “There’s a massacre in your pants!” or some such. Instead there’s a stupid woman with blonde hair smiling mysteriously, and some vague euphimisticky words about absorbency … Period ads should be like “You’re on shark week. You want to massacre ten thousand babies. Buy our cotton wads and stick them in your vagina. Kthxbai.”

Jemima: “I don’t think most of the ads are representative of real life. It’s not blue liquid that’s coming out. But at the same time, do I need to be reminded of my period when it’s not that time? Lady time sucks for me. The best advertising for these products in my opinion is the ‘odd spots’ trivia. At least I might learn an interesting fact as I am suffering through it.”

Pattern [on the ‘Love your beaver’ campaign]: “I’m not a fan of advertising that euphemises vaginas and periods too much. I get that maybe trying to make a funny ad about vaginas was good, I assume it aimed to make getting your period seem like a more light-hearted subject that you shouldn’t feel bad about. But to me, it kind of sent the opposite message, because it was like, ‘talking about vaginas openly isn’t ok, because they are too gross and taboo for it to be socially acceptable to say the word or think about’. It reinforced the idea that vaginas aren’t socially acceptable to think about, and makes women feel like periods are gross and not something they should be openly comfortable with.”

Brogan: “There needs to be more red, blue is used a lot because it’s less intimidating but perhaps if red were used we wouldn’t be so afraid of something that happens to half the population. Plus it would freak many people out which would be hilarious.”

Abby: “I hate pretty much all of them – although I didn’t mind those ones where mother nature was personified as a mean older lady who came at the worst possible times to give you the “gift” of your period so much – because it definitely feels like mother nature hates you or is punishing you with your period sometimes – but I’ve yet to see a really good ad for sanitary products, also the range available to us here in New Zealand is shit compared to other countries – I’d like to see some eco friendly options other than a moon-cup too.”

Tamara: “I honestly couldn’t care less about the advertising. They are an absolute necessity for most females so we’ll be buying them anyway! One thing I do like about marketing them however is the fact it helps remove that taboo feeling we all have about periods and how they’re gross etc. It doesn’t normalise them entirely but I’m sure it’s helping that process along.”

Thank you ladies.

And, yes we bleed every month, yes we get cramps, we break out and yeah it’s shitty, but can’t we have a bit of a laugh about it? A bit of therapeutic comedy is good for the soul. There are a few brands that have cottoned on to this, but sadly none are marketing themselves on New Zealand shores.

One of these is Bodyform.

This ad from 2013 called “The Truth” responds to a Facebook comment by a disillusioned man:

Another brand is Hello Flo, which is essentially a delivery service for your monthly menstrual needs (including chocolate).

The Period Fairy (Hello Flo):

First Moon Party (Hello Flo):

The Camp Gyno (Hello Flo):

Tampon Rap (Hello Flo):

It also has products for postpartum mums. This ad is also brilliant:

This ad by tampon brand UbyKotex is also pretty funny, and mentions all the stereotypes we have seen in the ads: the twirling, fluffy things, white spandex, running on the beach, the blue liquid on pads, etc.

This recent campaign by Libra takes a different, content marketing-led approach, focussing on how women should be fearless and can achieve anything they want – with or without their period, we assume. To me this seems like a step in the right direction, aligning its brand with strong and successful women.

But then again, it’s also the same brand that produced this ad, which ran in New Zealand at the end of last year:

And here’s an ad by Carefree, released this month featuring men attempting to explain women’s everyday beauty products and routines. While the ad is trying to be funny, and parts of it are, it also makes men seem really silly and ignorant around the topic of periods and women’s sanitary products. 

These ads, again while a bit funny, show a similar theme of the man-child who just doesn’t quite get it:

With the feminine hygiene market projected to hit $15.2 billion by 2017, according to Forbes, no doubt brands like Libra, Carefree and Stayfree will probably make big bucks no matter what the advertising is like, because these products are for many women, a necessity.

A lot of my friends say they don’t have any kind of preference when it comes to purchasing tampons or pads (apart from a few who said they pick up the nicest packaging in the cheapest range), because they all do the same thing. But I think there is definitely potential to increase brand preference. And considering the subject matter, there is so much potential for ads to be more like Hello Flo’s masterpieces that are funny, don’t disguise how sucky it can be and aren’t afraid to use words like “blood” or “vagina”, and can have a bit of a laugh about it.

Personally, if Hello Flo’s service was available in New Zealand, I would feel more inclined to use it than go to the supermarket to purchase the products, because of its ads. The advertising also penetrates much deeper than the idea of having a laugh. It also has the potential to change men and women’s attitudes and perceptions towards periods as being taboo and normalises something that is.. well.. completely normal.

Much like we are beginning to see with LGBT-inclusive advertising.

The market is changing too, new products are being released which leads me to question how the leading tampon/pad brands will fare in the future, with Moon Cups, Diva Cups and similar devices increasing in popularity and products like THINX predicted to disrupt the market. With more products available and increased competition, and consumers’ (at least this consumer’s) decreased satisfaction with the unrealistic ads we’ve had to endure for far too long, these brands are going to have to take another look at their consumers, themselves and step up their game.

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