Beating around the Bush: Historical Trends in Menstruation Advertising
A couple of weeks ago, American tampon delivery service HelloFlo launched an ad featuring a spunky, pubescent girl who leads her peers through the awkward transition into menstruation under the self-awarded title of ‘Camp Gyno’. You can watch the ad here:
And then immediately watch it again because of how great it is. The ad went viral in days, with media calling it ‘hilarious’, ‘genius’, and ‘an amazing breakthrough’ in advertising. This last statement – which has been reiterated in newspapers and blogs galore – is a response to something bigger than Helloflo and their clever writing. It alludes to the bizarre traditions that have come to characterize the representation of menstruation in advertising. To understand why the Camp Gyno ad really is the breakthrough everyone’s proclaiming, we have to take a brief look at its predecessors, and the long history of period-shaming that produced them.
The invention of the modern tampon in 1929 may have revolutionized many women’s experience of menstruation, but it did nothing much to change the deep-seated culture of shame and recoil in society at large. This is not a modern phenomenon – for as long as women have been menstruating, there have been taboos and myths associating the process with uncleanliness and shame. In prehistoric and ancient cultures throughout the world, menstruating women were believed to contaminate everything they touched, and were ritually segregated from food, growing plants, and young men, whose virility they were thought to endanger. In recent times, this taboo has taken form in the widespread uses of euphemisms, curiously inapt metaphors, and associations with female embarrassment and incompetency in tampon and pad adverts.
Exhibit A: Tampax, 1939
This ad illustrates several of the earliest trends in menstrual product advertising, which addressed the medical anxieties of the many women who had previously used only sanitary pads. By declaring its product ‘designed by a doctor’ and mentioning the American Medical Association, Tampax helped rid its future consumers of these worries. Interestingly, at this time Tampax didn’t actually have an endorsement from the AMA – they had merely been approved for advertising in their journals. The AMA eventually objected to Tampax’s implications of endorsement, and Tampax had to stop including that text on their products, but by that time the concerns they spoke to were largely a thing of the past anyway.
Notice how this ad fails to actually mention the menstruation process at all. The usage of the item itself is also left almost entirely omitted, except for the line that mentions being ‘worn internally’. For a long time, the tampon was advertised in terms of what it was not – ‘no bulk to show. No odor can form’, because it was safer to allude to the many problems of pads then to describe in any informative way the function they were both supposed to serve. Advertising was already reflecting the state of menstruation as an unspeakable taboo.
This ad also introduces the theme of the woman with responsibilities, which first became prevalent while women were major contributors to the American workforce during WWII, and never really disappeared. Phrases like ‘for any woman who must keep busy and active at all times of the month’ foreshadow a long pattern of advertisers reminding the female consumer of her duties, and the fact that without their product, she may fail to complete them.
Exhibit B: Modess, 1952
A few years later, with the war ended, women’s main responsibility is once again her maintenance of beauty and dignity, regardless of what’s going on in her life or her body. The ‘Modess… because’ ads usually featured no writing at all except for this caption, with the focus instead on a beautiful and elegantly dressed model such as this one.
Fortunately for my purposes, I was able to find one that did have text, and what wonderful text it is! The promises to make consumers feel like ‘an angel in the dancing dress that may have been spun from a cloud’, to ensure ‘peace of mind’, and to keep their ‘secret’ hit on a whole range of the advertising customs that still have yet to go out of style. In the last couple of decades, the dancing angel first invoked in ads such as this has taken to running through fields, riding horses, and spinning in joyous circles, always while wearing a white dress and a smile.
The ad continues the trend of avoiding any specific mentions to menstruation or the purpose of the product, making sure women’s greatest secret is kept secure.
Here are just a few examples of the many things you can do while on your period.
Thanks for the reassurance, Tampax.
Exhibit C: Pursettes, 1974
Around the 70s, the sexual revolution had brought with it some new, more informative commercials. This comic-panel format in which a girl teaches her friend about tampons was common.
A lot has been achieved by this point. The words ‘period’, ‘tampons’, and ‘napkins’ (American for pads) are finally common enough to use in print without controversy, and there are some specific references to how the product is used and how it works (‘pre-lubricated tip’, ‘super-absorbent’). The point of secrecy is still essential, and is secured through the discrete carrying compact. By now, advertisers had begun to speak to women in more direct, less euphemistic terms, but their key refrain stayed the same: without us, your period is going to stop you living your normal life.
Exhibit D: Always, 2010
(couldn't upload the video, sorry guys)
I adore this Always ad from a couple of years ago. These kitsch, convivial dancers put humorous spin on the ritual of checking yourself for signs of your period which has been treated with so much embarrassment in the ads of the past. It’s still obviously something women are supposed to worry about – if they didn’t, Always would have nothing to capitalize on – but there’s a sense of community and shared understanding here that’s lacking in the other ads we’ve looked at, all of which feature either a solitary woman figuring things out on her own, or a pair of women commiserating and educating each other in privacy. Here we have a whole generation of schoolgirls bemoaning together, and then celebrating when Always takes away this burden of ‘checking’.
The teacher using a mysterious blue liquid to test the pad’s absorbency is an advertising trope dating back a couple of decades. The liquid is almost always blue, never anything close to red. This protects advertisers from getting too close to actually mentioning blood. God forbid.
Sometimes, as demonstrated here, advertisers can get a little carried away in their depictions of just how joyous the life of the menstruating woman has become. That’s always fun.
Finally, in 2013, we have Helloflo: a company not afraid to use specific, non-euphemistic language, startlingly red liquids, and honesty to advertise a menstrual product. By showing a young girl uninhibitedly using the words ‘period’, ‘vagina’ and ‘vag’, Helloflo destigmatises the subject of menstruation and makes their competitors look old-fashioned stick-in-the-muds. The experience of menstruation is not fearfully referenced as a potential catastrophe that must be constantly kept at bay, nor as some kind of bizarre monthly female funfest. It’s treated as a rite of passage, and upon reaching it first, the Camp Gyno uses it to empower herself and educate others.
The Camp Gyno is young, but she represents a life-changing moment all menstruating women can easily recall. She reminds the female viewer of all the awkwardness of her first period in a way that makes it seem funny instead of humiliating. The conversations she has with her peers are frank and forthright, instead of closeted. She talks like a real pre-teen, making her instantly relatable to a market of young girls just beginning to menstruate, as well as their nostalgic elders.
The ad is successful because it represents a common experience with humour and honesty. It’s important because it breaks taboos, and because it’s making people talk about things that have been culturally cloaked in silence for no good reason.
To sign off, here’s an excellent parody of many of the tropes I identified here:
Have a good week everyone!