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How advertising is (slowly) helping to destigmatize women’s periods

Nonprofits and brands are using creative advertising to get real about menstruation.

How advertising is (slowly) helping to destigmatize women’s periods
[Image: Bloody Good Period]
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The average woman spends about $9 per month on period products, and over the course of the pandemic amid widespread job instability and income loss, the issue of “period poverty” has gained new prominence.

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U.K.-based advocacy organization Bloody Good Period, which supplies period products to those who can’t afford them, says the level of demand is now six times higher than pre-COVID-19. The group recently launched a new campaign called “NoShameHere” to kick-start conversations around period stigma. The new campaign features an animated PSA, created with ad agency Mother London, that reworks the classic 1992 CeCe Peniston track “Finally” into a period-stigma anthem that addresses all the ways periods impact women’s lives.

Mother London worked with an all-female animation team at studio Strange Beast to create the film, and Mother executive creative director Susan Hosking says they were all collectively hell-bent on doing something arresting that got people talking. “We wanted to create an entertaining, fun, positive film that hyperbolized the real experiences that happen when you get your period,” says Hosking. “By dialing up the volume of what you saw and heard, it helped to emphasize how natural periods, and what happens to your body around them, really are. We wanted our visuals to be as bold and honest as the lyrics we used in our song.”

This PSA is part of a new wave of advocacy from both nonprofits and period product brands to remove the stigma of periods—built up over a century of advertising—that positions this natural bodily function as something to hide and discuss as little as possible. This coincides with movements around the globe to help more women get access to the products they need, from ditching taxes on tampons to Scotland last year becoming the first country to make period products free.

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[Image: Bloody Good Period]
PSAs like this one, and the equally bold “Seeing Red” from fellow U.K. organization Hey Girls from last month, are powerful. However, in order to truly destigmatize periods, major brands need to pivot harder out of the decades spent talking around the issue and put their marketing budget and media reach behind it. They’re starting to—but there is a new generation of startup brands beating them to it.

“Consumerism is inextricably intertwined with our movement, because products are a part of what we use to take care of menstruation, it’s part of how we talk about solutions, and think about menstruation in the modern world,” says Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, cofounder of the nonprofit advocacy group Period Equity and author of the 2017 book Periods Gone Public.

P&G’s Tampax is the undisputed ruler of the period products market, with almost 30% market share worldwide. Johnson & Johnson (maker of o.b. brand) is next with less than 20%. For much of the past 100 years, period products have been marketed as tools to keep menstruation discreet and prevent it from disrupting everyday life. All without ever mentioning blood. Hence all the white jeans and blue liquid.

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A print ad from Kimberly-Clark’s Kotex in the 1970s reads, “Be untamed. Be unspoiled. Be undiscovered.” In the ’80s, the brand wrote stuff like, “Slip into your silkiest bikinis without a care . . .” More recently, Kotex discovered meta-advertising, the kind of ads that acknowledge the absurdity of ads in order to be more effective ads. Get it? So in 2010, Kotex brand launched an ad called “Obnoxious” that took a swing at every tampon ad cliché in the book. Progress? Sure. But in making fun of common advertising convention, Kotex still danced around the real issues those conventions weren’t addressing in the first place.

In 2017, Libresse, a brand owned by the fourth-best-selling feminine-care products company SCA, became the first ad to depict actual blood with its award-winning spot “Blood Normal.” Created by ad agency AMV BBDO, the brief from the brand was to create something meaningful to women. Agency account director Sarah Hore-Lacy and strategy director Margaux Revol said it was while thinking about what could be meaningful in a period product ad that they had a moment of clarity. “Where is the blood?” said both Hore-Lacy and Revol in an email.  “And we realized that if  we went out and showed blood in the most normal way possible, like it wasn’t a big deal, we knew it could be groundbreaking.”

The ad didn’t just talk about “that time of the month,” it directly showed the physical and social discomfort women often suffer during menstruation, from cramps to sexual activity. It replaced the blue liquid so common for decades in pad and tampon commercials with the blood red reality, and ended on the tagline,”Periods are normal. Showing them should be too.” It won several major advertising awards, including the 2018 Cannes Lions Glass Lion for Change Grand Prix, which awards work promoting positive cultural change affecting gender inequality.

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It was an unusually frank ad from a major brand. But newer period underwear brands such as Thinx and Modibodi have shown more comfort being direct about periods. Both had ads “banned” for depictions of periods that hit a little too close to reality. Thinx’s 2019 spot “MENstruation” imagined what it would be like if men got their period, and was rejected by major TV networks for showing a tampon string. Last year, Facebook initially banned Modibodi’s “New Way to Period” for showing a bloodstained sheet.

Modibodi CEO Kristy Chong says Facebook’s decision wasn’t that surprising, considering how slow brands have been to normalize discussions around periods and women’s health. “We were encouraged by the fact that while Facebook initially asked for all scenes showing blood to be omitted, after we took a stand and refused to remove them, we experienced significant industry and consumer support, which prompted direct discussions with Facebook in both Australia and the U.S.A. and eventually led to the film being reinstated,” Chong says in an email. “A great result and a step in the right direction, which shows that if we keep having open conversations about menstruation we can bring about change.”

That kind of work, and the response to it, undoubtedly influenced P&G’s Tampax to enlist Amy Schumer for a 2020 campaign that looked to counter the type of cliched, unrealistic period advertising Tampax itself perpetuated for decades. Schumer talks to everyday women of all ages about how they learned about tampons and how to use them, with many saying they were forced to figure it out on their own, in part due to it largely being a taboo subject. It wasn’t quite strong enough to balance out the decades of vague messaging from the brand, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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Vancouver-based Aisle, which has been making reusable menstrual products since 1999, has been a forerunner in using its brand to destigmatize periods, and cofounder Suzanne Siemens says that there is significant momentum right now, thanks to the combination of brand and nonprofit messaging. “I expect to see a more permanent change because the cultural attitudes about periods are shifting in areas outside of brand advertising,” says Siemens in an email.

Much like climate change, racial equity, and pride, brands are recognizing that embracing the language of destigmatization is actually good for business. Thinx sales grew by 40% in 2020. “It is progress to have companies believe, and maybe see in their own bottom line, that more realistic and more just demonstrations of the experience of menstruation are beneficial for them, because those benefits transcend their own interests,” says Weiss-Wolf.

The momentum may exist, but for Modibodi’s Chong, there’s plenty of work to do. “We need to keep shouting about it,” Chong says. “While as an industry and a broader society we’ve progressed somewhat in terms of our openness, we’re still a long way from where we should be.”

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Witness a new Kotex ad from April that featured a young woman jumping on words to describe period inconveniences like “moody,” “PMS,” and “weak” accompanied by generic pep-talk-speak, “I step over negative perceptions and create my own path.”

“Periods are natural and normal,” Chong says. “And as an audience, we shouldn’t be embarrassed to watch adverts about periods, or to talk about them.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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