Stop sanitising tampon ads. There's no such thing as a happy period



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.

But in general, the underlying script is the same: we are leaky, malodorous, embarrassing creatures, likely to break into dodgy dance moves at the first hint of a hormonal surge.

Periods aren’t embarrassing. But our inability to have a grown-up conversation about them is. Women, I’ve noticed, have no problem discussing our menstrual cycles with each other. We compare notes about tears shed, or quantities of Maltesers consumed; we even prevail upon each other for tampon supplies when we’re caught short. So if we can laugh about our periods, why can’t advertisers?

In fairness to the ad industry, it has tried once or twice to break with convention, and be a bit less coy about what it’s trying to sell. The results were not encouraging.

Agony aunt Claire Rayner was famously the first person on British television to demonstrate how to use a condom. But it was the matter-of-fact 1992 ad she did for Vespre Silhouettes “Now With Wings” that caused the most controversy of her career.

Lil-lets tried again in 2003 with an ad that was based on a spoof children’s television show. It generated record numbers of complaints for that year to the British advertising standards authority – most of them from men.

A 2010 ad for the American brand U by Kotex parodying the industry was more successful. “How do I feel about my period?” the actress in the ad asks. “I love it . . . Sometimes I just want to run on a beach. Unusually, by the third day, I just want to dance.” Sadly, the ad was rewarded for its candour with instant banning by three US TV networks. It had to be re-edited to replace the word “vagina” with the expression “down there” – and even then, two of the three networks still refused to run it.

So it’s little wonder the advertising industry plays it safe. But what we need isn’t more gore in tampon ads, or more graphic product descriptions. Guys, it’s been 80 years. We know what they’re for.

Instead, it would be nice if the advertising industry would start treating us as the sentient adults that we are. Less rollerblading. Less of the leaky, whiffy stuff. Fewer euphemisms. A bit more wit and maturity. That should do it.

It all makes the ad for Butterfly sanitary pads, which appeared on billboards in Karachi in Pakistan in 2010, seem refreshingly upfront. “WikiLeaks . . . Butterfly doesn’t,” it read.

You all have a happy period, now.

Let's all agree group think is not just an Irish problem

IN ANNA Carragher's report earlier this year into the libeling of Fr Kevin Reynolds by RTÉ, the culture of corporate "groupthink" in the organisation was identified as being a key factor in the decision-making behind the broadcasting of the programme.

Groupthink is difficult to define, but at its core, it is the practice of making decisions as a group, in a way that discourages individual responsibility.

This week, as the controversy over the decision by Newsnight to drop a show about allegations of abuse by Jimmy Savile continues to unfold, there is plenty of evidence of groupthink in action at the BBC.

In some parts of the organisation, it seems to have evolved into a kind of defensive self-censorship, shutting down all discussion on decisions, and leaving dissenting voices with nowhere to go. As Jeremy Paxman put it on Newsnight, "After a while, you understand osmotically or intuitively what is wanted", by the organisation, and you deliver it.

At the BBC – in contrast to RTÉ – discussions about whether or not to broadcast the investigation appear not even to have taken place at management level. By his own account, Newsnight editor Peter Rippon simply dropped the programme for a variety of "editorial reasons". Emails published this week allegedly reveal that he was concerned the programme's sources were "just the women".

The BBC has a distance to go before it can fully account for the culture that allowed Savile access to children – and it was reluctant to challenge him, even in death. Rooting out the groupthink may be even more difficult.

HPV vaccine is a win-win situation for young girls

IN THIS week from the Department of Astonishing Scientific Findings: inoculating 11-year-old girls against the cancer-causing strains of the HPV virus does not cause them to become promiscuous.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that in a sample of 1,400 American girls, those who received the vaccine were no more likely to turn up in the following three years with an STD, pregnant or on birth control, than girls who weren't vaccinated.

The question is, – did anyone seriously think getting a vaccine would make girls promiscuous? What the vaccine does mean is that parents have to have a conversation with their 11- or 12-year-old about sex. Understandably, many would rather put that off as long as possible.

But rather than giving them a "licence to have sex", as some parents reportedly fear, this vaccine, and the conversations around it, should be an opportunity to encourage them to hold off on becoming sexually active until they are older, and in a mutually respectful and loving relationship, while in the process protecting them against a serious form of cancer. It's a win-win.