A Candid Look At Menstrual Products – Advertising and Public Relations
Menstrual products have been used since ancient times and are now among the most widely advertised products in the world. The various ways that menstrual pads and tampons have been advertised and the means used by public relations practitioners to promote the competing products provide insights into the shifting attitudes about human sexuality and women’s bodies.
Overt sex is common on TV shows and in films. Explicit sexual language is in all media. However, menstrual product companies are extremely conservative in their advertising and public relations.
Current advertising is more sophisticated and casual than in past years. Public relations activities, particularly Web sites and booklets, are more liberated, but, in general, feminine hygiene promotion is an anomaly compared to other categories.
For years, the pioneer and market leader was Kimberly-Clark, makers of Kotex pads, liners and tampons. In recent years, Procter & Gamble, makers of Always pads and Tampax tampons, has moved to the number one position in the U.S.
Johnson & Johnson makes Modess Stayfree pads and o.b. Tampons. Kimberly-Clark and Playtex Products also make tampons. Another major company is Bayer Healthcare, which makes the analgesic product, Midol, for menstrual pain.
In the past, advertising for feminine hygiene products was almost clinical with emphasis on product benefits, such as absorbency, comfort and freshness. Advertising in good taste is essential to the advertiser, the media and the consumer.
As with all television advertisers, but particularly in the personal products category, the advertising guidelines issued by the networks are extremely influential in determining what is broadcast. Obviously, stringent standards of taste are stressed, including limited use of children in the commercials.
Surprisingly, none of the guidelines at NBC and ABC use the word menstruation or menstrual product. This undoubtedly influences the language in the commercials of the menstrual products companies, which rarely mention menstruation or variations of this common word.
Some Celebrities Balk
Among the celebrities who have been featured in menstrual product advertising are actresses Susan Dey, Carol Lynley, Brenda Vacarro; gymnastics Mary Lou Retton and Cathy Rigby, and models Suzy Parker and Cheryl Tiegs. It was not easy to secure these celebrities and many models and actresses spurned lucrative offers from menstrual product advertisers.
In an advertising coup in 1921, Kimberly-Clark featured a message from Clara Barton, founder of The American Red Cross, in an ad for Ferns, which was made by Kimberly-Clark. Mrs. Barton also authored a booklet, “Personal Daintiness.” Readers could send in a coupon with ten cents, to receive the booklet in a “plain wrapper.”
Kotex pioneered in the use of booklets and has produced the largest quantity. For decades, starting in the 1930’s, the best known was “Marjorie May’s Twelfth Birthday,” which set the theme for mothers to talk honestly and positively to their young daughters.” A 1940 booklet, subtitled “Kotex Menarche Booklet,” introduced an arcane word, menarche, the first menstrual period. The etymology is from the Greek men, or monthly, and arkhe, or beginning. A Kotex ad in 1942 for this booklet was one of the first ads to include the word menstruation.
In view of the restricted language in recent TV commercials, we have not made much progress in this regard. As recently as about seven years ago, Kotex advertising excluded such words as menstruation, menstrual flow and period.
Thousands of drug stores and other retail outlets today display stacks of menstrual products on open shelves. It wasn’t always as commercial. Advertising genius Albert Lasker is credited with the concept, in the 1920’s, of putting containers in drugstores so that women could put money into them and take a box of Kotex without having to speak to a clerk. (Similarly, contraceptives have moved from a request item behind the counter to highly visible positions.)
One of the first widely advertised tampon was Tampax, introduced in 1936. In 1997, Procter & Gamble acquired Tampax from Tambrands for $1.85 billion.
Tampax has always been unusually frank about its major problem. Many women incorrectly be lieved that the vaginal penetration would damage the hymen so that the user no longer would appear to be a virgin, at least anatomically.
Medical authorities were enlisted, sampling on campuses and elsewhere was widespread, but it took years to overcome the prejudice. A 9 1990 ad was forthrightly headlined, “Are you sure I’ll still be a virgin?” The lengthy ad concluded, “Tampax tampons. The better way to deal with your period.”
A majority of American women now use tampons, particularly during the day. Tampon use outside of the U.S. is much more limited.
The Red Dot Succeeds
In 2000, Kotex achieved considerable recognition with a global campaign that featured a red dot that symbolizes a woman’s period. The double meaning tagline was “Kotex fits. Period.”
The campaign, estimated by Advertising Age with an extraordinarily large budget of $25 million, literally repositioned the product and was so successful that the packages were redesigned with red dots. The agency, Ogilvy & Mather, produced magazine ads, as well as network TV commercials. Ogilvy created the red dot, which has become a graphic icon.
Surprisingly, the word period had never been used in an American TV commercial. The advertising standards departments at the networks initially questioned the new Kotex campaigns, particularly its use of the word period. Ogilvy convinced the networks with focus group research of women who commonly used the word and enjoyed the brevity and irreverent frankness of the commercials.
o.b. Tampons was the first digital tampon, that is, inserted manually. Currently, it’s also made with an applicator. The product was developed about 50 years ago by a German gynecologist, Dr. judith Esser. To European women, the concept of digital insertion was acceptable and the product was promoted with extremely candid advertising. A booklet in 1978 included photos of nude girls, which would be unthinkable in the U.S.
The German company was acquired by Johnson & Johnson in 1974. o.b. Tampons now is a product of Personal Products Company, a division of McNeil, which is a Johnson & Johnson company.
The name o.b. is the initials of the German term ohne binde, without a pad. U.S. public relations used the inspiring phrase, “Oh be You!” A major public relations program on college campuses is cleverly called o.b.U. and the curriculum is called o.b.U Indie Days: A Celebration of Female Individuality on Campus.
A current booklet from o.b. Tampons, “The Truth About Tampons,” discusses Toxic Shock Syndrome, which once was a scary problem for tampon users and still requires a warning on tampon boxes. The excellent booklet discusses menstrual bleeding.
However, other public relations materials are more reticent. A recent news release had no mention of such words as menstruation, menstrual flow or period. A fact sheet had one reference to menstrual fluid.
Along with other advertisers, Personal Products Company is strongly influenced by the networks. The guidelines are general but, in specific instances, some of the networks object to mentions of a string that is attached to the tampon and also consider the word “removable” to be in poor taste.
Playtex Products has an excellent educational program in behalf of its Slimfits and other Playtex tampons. Called “Straight Talk period,” an unusually frank videotape and booklets discuss the reproductive system and surrounding area, with such words as anus, urethra, uterus and vagina – everyday words that are not commonly used by menstrual products companies, except, in some cases, on their Web sites.
The Kotex puberty education program has a booklet that uses explicit language and drawings, including a section for boys, which mentions the male genitalia.
Always has a program for boys and girls called “Always Changing About You.” A large-size workbook for teachers includes worksheets and quizzes, with a major portion devoted to non-menstrual subjects, including food, exercise, skin (acne and pimples), hair, breasts and other health subjects.
A light approach, somewhat humorous, appears in advertising outside of the U.S. An American exception is Midol, which uses more candid language, as well as humor.
An explanation may be that Midol, which re lieves menstrual pain, is a pill taken orally and is not inserted genitally. A recent Midol magazine advertisement, headlined “Complete Relief” and showing attractive young women, was quite competitive with the statement, “Get more complete relief than Tylenol and Advil.” The advertising agency is BBDO Chicago.
In addition to a Parent & Teacher Guide and other materials, the Midol Web site has a humorous game, called “Battle the sinister symptoms of MONSTERUATION.” The evil forces of MONSTERUATION are battled by the Mighty Midols, Marissa the Cramp Killer, Mimi the Water Retention Warrior and Maya the PMS Predator.
In summary, current advertising for menstrual products has become more casual, sophisticated and entertaining, but, in general, the language has remained conservative. The word period is used creatively but there is a reticence to using such common words as menstruation, menstrual flow and menstrual product. It seems that some menstrual product companies may be embarrassed to be associated with bleeding.
The first menstrual pads were made in the 1890’s. The first users were primarily actresses and dancers. Today, all pre-menopausal women use a variety of menstrual products. Advertising for these products, which is extremely competitive, has changed considerably from the 1920’s. The advertising is more sophisticated, of course, but it’s still relatively restrained. Perhaps this will change. Another possibility is the development of new types of menstrual pads and tampons. Undoubtedly, Kimberly-Clark, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson are working on this.
The average woman has about 500 menstrual periods during her lifetime, from puberty to menopause. That means a myriad of business opportunities for menstrual product companies. The greatest sales potential is outside of the U.S., particularly for tampons in China, Japan and other major Asian countries.
“The curse” has resulted in menstrual product advertising as one of the last bastions of restraint. One hopeful sign is the Web sites, which are the new frontier.
What’s the biggest change in menstrual products? The market has increased tremendously. For example, in the 1840’s, the average age that girls started their periods was about 16.5 years. Today, it’s 13. Furthermore, menopause is starting at older ages. With the increased ages and opening of new markets and sales opportunities around the world, the so-called curse promises to be a blessing. Advertising and public relations campaigns for menstrual products are likely to become “sexier” in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Richard Weiner is Sr. Consultant at Porter Novelli, New York. The Weiner public relations firm helped to launch o.b. Tampons in the U.S.
Copyright Public Relations Quarterly Summer 2004
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