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June 8, 2021

Menstruation in Advertising – Breaking the Ultimate Taboo

by Marilyn Wilkinson
Primark Instagram Post of Woman Lying on Bed

It’s the most natural thing in the world and affects half the population. So, what is it about the menstrual cycle that causes people to freak out if an ad shows blood?

Brands like Primark, Yoppie, and Kotex are working hard to fight period stigma and their latest campaigns portray menstruation more openly and realistically than ever before. But have attitudes really changed?

The Very First Period Ads

Periods are nothing new, and neither are ads for menstrual products. In fact, the first print ads date back to the 1870s.

However, if you think back to the period ads you’ve seen on TV, even in recent years, you’ll probably recall women in white shorts dancing around and feeling fabulous. No vaginas, and definitely no blood.

Ads for menstrual products were banned on TV and radio until 1972, and it wasn‘t until 1985 that the word "period" was used. The ad, ran by the brand Tampax, featured a young pre-Friends Courtney Cox in tight spandex telling the audience, “Feeling cleaner is more comfortable. It can actually change the way you feel about your period.”

Even after menstrual products could finally be advertised on TV, brands were still heavily restricted in what they could say and show on air. Specific details around anatomy were forbidden and a watery, blue liquid was used instead of blood.

Obviously, in real life, menstruation does not look like that.

From Stigma to “So What” – Meet the Brands Fighting the Good Fight

While a period is a sign of a healthy body able to procreate, advertising has traditionally portrayed menstruation as an illness or undesirable condition.

For years, societal norms have implied that people should be discreet about or even ashamed of their monthly cycle. But fortunately, this is starting to change.

Brands and influencers are increasingly using their voice to normalize menstruation, provide educational content and improve access to hygiene products, especially in developing countries.

Let’s take a look at the brands taking a stand and how they portray periods in their campaigns in 2021.

Kotex #SheCan

Kotex is an American brand of menstrual hygiene products whose product range includes pads, tampons, and period underwear. The brand was created 100 years ago, when nurses at the front lines had to keep working even when they had their periods.

To commemorate their 100th anniversary, Kotex has launched a global campaign called “She Can” to champion women’s progress. Kotex has committed to investing $2.5 million over three years to expand menstrual hygiene education and access.

Juanita Pelaez, Vice President, Global Adult and Feminine Care for Kimberly-Clark, stated, "The Kotex She Can Initiative is a long-term effort to build a future where a period never gets in the way of any woman's progress."

On Instagram, the brand called upon users to “start a new cycle” free of shame and stigma, and to just call a period what it is instead of using euphemisms like “aunt flow” or “crimson tide”.

Yoppie

Personal care brand Yoppie is helping break the stigma surrounding period anxiety with a new omnichannel campaign aiming to raise awareness for the issue and even share free menstrual products.

A survey conducted by the brand found that 27% of women (anyone identifying as a woman, non-binary, trans men/women) experience anxiety about planning their social life while on their period, especially as facilities like public toilets have been closed during lockdown.

While Yoppie can’t influence the availability of public toilets, they can increase access to free period care. Every Yoppie customer can give their friends and family £30 credit via a unique code, and for each person who subscribes, they get £20 back. Doing so will provide users with free Yoppie products for months or even years.

Yoppie founder Danielle Peri said, “We wanted to make sure women across the nation were well armed with free period care products to help reduce anxiety when planning around their period.”

Primark Period Underwear

Primark, the global fast fashion retailer headquartered in Ireland, recently launched a new range of washable, reusable period underwear. Designed to replace single-use period products, the period pants look and feel like regular underwear and are an innovative move towards making menstrual products more sustainable.

To announce the launch, Primark collaborated with Liv Blankson, a UK-based fashion blogger and influencer with over 30,000 followers.

In an emotional yet down-to-earth video, Liv opens up about her experiences with Menorrhagia (heavy periods), saying, “I’ve struggled with my period since I ever got it, to be honest.”

Liv goes on to explain that although she hadn’t previously considered period underwear, the Primark period pants were a game-changer for her, enabling her to feel more confident and cut her consumption of disposable sanitary products in half.

For a mainstream fashion brand, rather than a niche period underwear brand, this kind of campaign is a big deal and goes a long way towards normalizing periods.

Is Period Stigma Really Gone?

You might be thinking, society has come a long way in recent years. We all know periods are a fact of life for a significant part of the population.

However…

In 2017, the first ad in the UK to depict real period blood, Bodyform’s "Blood Normal" sent shock waves and was banned by Facebook.

In 2019, Thinx ran a TV ad showing a tampon string hanging out of someone's underwear, which was banned by numerous TV networks following numerous user complaints.

And only last year, the Tampax ad dubbed “tampons and tea” was banned in the UK and Ireland for causing “widespread offence”.

So while we have made progress, there is clearly a lot of ground to cover before menstruation is truly accepted.

Final Thoughts

The global movement against period shaming is empowering people who menstruate to lead more comfortable and confident lives. Brands have a vital role to play in eliminating period stigma and discrimination.

To some extent, brands are leading the way while society needs to catch up. For too long, culture and traditions have perpetuated the notion that periods are shameful, impure, and unnatural. This has led people who menstruate to miss work and school, feel embarrassed to ask for hygiene products, and be too ashamed to get help for their menstrual health issues.

This needs to change, and luckily, is changing.

However, many trans and non-binary people have periods too and are still underrepresented in advertising – even forward-thinking period brands aim most of their advertising at “women”.

Nonetheless, a mainstream fashion brand like Primark talking about heavy flow is a huge step forward - even if they do show pretty underwear and a flat stomach rather than blood, bloating and cramps. It seems society isn’t quite ready to see the full reality of menstruation yet.

While there is still progress to be made, how brands treat periods has come a long way from the days of Courtney Cox’s spandex pants.

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