Stop sanitising tampon ads. There's no such thing as a happy period
Compiled by JENNIFER O'CONNELL
THIS IS A column about the stuff the advertising industry wants to protect you from. That’s right: we’re talking about the messy reality of womanhood. The word “period” may feature. Cutsey euphemisms such as Aunty Flo, The Painters and That Time of the Month won’t. Neither will the suggestion that the shedding of the uterine lining is the ideal opportunity to go ice-skating in a pair of tight white jeans.
So if you’re squeamish about that kind of thing, move right along to the other pages.
Still here? Right. According to the people in adland, of course, there’s no such thing as the bloody business of being a woman. Being a woman is all about twirling in slow motion on beaches; doing extreme yoga in a pair of tiny pink shorts; and – as the current campaign for Bodyform sanitary pads mystifyingly puts it – “releasing your whoah”.
Earlier this month, a man called Richard Neill left a comment on the Facebook page of Bodyform, drawing attention to this puzzling discrepancy. Neill wrote: “As a child I watched your advertisements with interest as to how at this wonderful time of the month . . . the female gets to enjoy so many things. I felt a little jealous. I mean bike riding, rollercoasters, dancing, parachuting.”
But then, Neill says, he got a girlfriend, and discovered, that “there was no joy, no extreme sports, no blue water spilling over wings and no rocking soundtrack” – instead, his girlfriend changed “to the little girl from The Exorcist”.
Last week, Bodyform released a spoof response to Neill’s comment on YouTube. In the video, the company’s would-be CEO drinks from a jug of blue water and ruefully admits, “We lied to you, Richard . . . there’s no such thing as a happy period”.
The Bodyform video breaks with two of the major conventions for public discussion of the female menstrual cycle: it’s actually funny, and it uses the word “blood”.
Why are we so squeamish about something that will affect half the population once a month, for at least part of their lives?
To be fair, it’s not just periods we’re icky about. In Bodies: Exploring Fluid Boundaries, the academic Robyn Longhurst points out that Western society has a deep cultural anxiety over all bodily fluids and the processes by which they are emitted, from spitting to breastfeeding.
But I’d venture that periods are still a lot more taboo than sneezing. Nowhere is this more evident than in TV advertising of sanitary products. That first ever tampon ad was for a brand named Fax. It appeared in newspapers in the US in the 1930s, featuring a drawing of a woman in a bathing suit, and text cryptically promising “A new freedom, comfort, convenience”.
In the eight decades since, the advertising has moved on – a bit. Women in tampon ads now get to cycle bikes, ride horses, do yoga, paraglide and even – in one memorable Danish effort – be eaten by a shark. Now, instead of dire warnings about “lost daintiness”, we get the promise of odour-neutralising ActiPearls.