Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Laughing AT Us

October 28th, 2009 by Chris Bobel
SKIDS: Masculine Hygiene, 2007, Chella Quint

SKIDS: Masculine Hygiene, 2007, Chella Quint

I don’t know how it happened, but somehow, I missed the viral web-based marketing campaign  “Men with Cramps” launched in 2006 by Dandelion for P&G’s ThermaCare. (Dandelion, by the way, calls themselves a “brand-sponsored storytelling company”. I. Am. Not. Making.This.Up)  The campaign generated 1.3 million views and over 15K mentions in blogs and chats and critical acclaim with a 2008 Bronze Effie Award. Nothing like a good story, I guess.

Full disclosure:

I find the campaign hilarious. This is very witty satire. The parodies of “doing science,” of Ken Burns-style documentaries and especially of MASCULINITY are beautifully executed.  As I watched the series of short videos, I laughed so hard my partner had to take his work to another room (and I had the audio on headphones). But it was the kind of laughter that felt naughty, betraying, even forbidden (and alert readers already know we at re:Cycling are consistently suspicious of “the forbidden”).

Why the guilty pleasure, then? Why not JUST pleasure?

Well, the obvious answer is not simply that I am a cranky humorless feminist (see above), but that this campaign’s intent, of course, is to move product and that always causes me pause. There’s funny and there’s funny that makes somebody rich. I prefer just funny.  And while ThermaCare (a heat wrap designed to soothe menstrual cramps) doesn’t necessarily depend on the menstrual taboo for its success (unlike pads and tampons which exploit the cultural mandate to tidy it up and NEVER, EVER spring a leak), a sales pitch is a sales pitch and I begin to resent the sneaking feeling of being manipulated by corporate shills.

Lighten up, you say? Well, that’s just the top layer.

Dandelion explains that the idea behind the campaign was to  “Give women the vicarious, cathartic pleasure of watching MEN deal with the pain of menstrual cramps.” They further explain that in their research (whatever that is), women expressed a deep need for the men in their lives to really understand menstrual pain, and furthermore, “women universally believe that men are wimps when it comes to pain.”

Marketing strategy in a nutshell:  Drive traffic to the product through pained women’s revenge fantasies.

But as I found myself doubled over with laughter, I realized that I wasn’t loving this material because men were finally getting theirs, I was yucking it up because the mockumentary ridiculed the kind of serious attention some of us pay to the menstrual cycle. If you stop and think a minute, it suggests that women [and their advocates] are just taking themselves too seriously.

Gender switcheroos like these typically work because they demonstrate the ridiculousness of something (usually a gender script, like women’s preening behaviors or men’s swaggering) through exaggeration. I do exercises like these in my Intro to Women’s Studies classes often and they work well. The role reversal lifts a cultural veil.

Watching the earnest blowhard talking heads arguing the PROFOUND impact of menstrual cramps on the events of history (Napoleon had ’em, and Achilles, Shakespeare, too), ya gotta ask:  Do we look THAT silly making arguments about how debilitating menstrual pain can be? 30 seconds with wacky Dr. Fardel and you end here: Are menstrual cycle scholars coming across as THAT self-important and vacuous when we design our research studies, collect our data, and report our findings? Fardel’s hysterical research subjects and their tales of woe lead to: Are women really THAT whiny when they complain of  PMS and/or pain that really really hurts and gets in the way of normal, daily functioning?

Gee, to watch these clever parodies, one would think so.

But I am not going there.

Instead, I consulted someone who thinks and writes about FemCare advertising a lot more than I do. I asked menstrual activist/performance artist/zinester/comic  Chella Quint to “read” the campaign. Here’s what she wrote:

“Yeah, they’re funny, but in some ways [women are] still the butt of the joke, and their ultimate goal is still selling you stuff you don’t need that will make them rich.”

What she said.

In 2007, Quint, no stranger to funny, created a faux product and campaign called SKIDS for the purpose of, as she puts it, “showing up feminine hygiene ads for what they are.”

More from Quint:

…About Skids,  they don’t really exist – sorry. We can’t really condone more disposable products anyway, and at least underwear is washable. This isn’t really a scatological campaign – it’s mainly about showing up feminine hygiene ads for what they are.

If you’ve seen the Skids ads, they should have looked familiar to you. The language, imagery and style are all in keeping with tampon and maxi-pad adverts through the ages. Euphemism-laden, soft-focused and coy, these ads have influenced cultural taboos. Despite the potential of new media to break the cycle, these same old techniques and lazy stereotypes are beginning to infiltrate feminine hygiene product websites and social networking sites as well.

In light of this, we reckoned sometimes the only way to beat ‘em is to join ‘em. We created the ad campaign to point up some classic conventions that only jump out at you when the situation is reversed. So the next time you see a feminine hygiene ad, think twice

[By the way, Quint adds, it is in no way  our intention to mock people who have incontinence]

See the rest of the SKIDS backstory here.

I love, and I mean, love how SKIDS places Emperor FemCare In The Buff as the butt of the joke.

Not women and their bodies.

That’s a needed change.

And that’s funny I can laugh at with abandon.

Thanks to Chella Quint’s SKIDS, I am thinking twice about “Men with Cramps.”

I am thinking twice about women’s so-called trivial concerns as the punchline yet AGAIN.

And I will keep thinking about what makes something funny and who pays for the laughs, I mean, literally, who pays and who profits?

7 responses to “Laughing AT Us”

  1. Laura Wershler says:

    Wow! So much food for thought I’m going to have to take some serious time to digest it. Maybe even scarf a few pro-biotics. Thanks, Chris, for a thoughtful take on this complex subject. As I often say when I’m having trouble with something – an article, ad, news story, product, drug, etc – related to women’s sexual and reproductive health – at the very least it gets us talking.

  2. Chella says:

    Thanks so much for bringing this campaign to our attention, valuing my opinion, and sharing the viral magic of Skids!

  3. […] Menstrual Cycle Research just helped my viral campaign take one of its first baby viral steps with this blog post by the always awesome Chris […]

  4. Lauren Z says:

    Maybe I’ve just spent too much time studying and writing papers for school today, but the Skids site had me laughing until I was crying. This line especially had me clutching at my sides:

    “Totally discreet and disposable — to keep those nasty after-effects of drinking too much beer to ourselves, and away from the ladies.”

    As someone who is in the habit of picking apart every FemCare ad I see, this is a comedy goldmine.

  5. Andrea says:

    Yup, this makes me uncomfortable. I laughed when watching Dandelion’s discussion of what they did to sell ThermaWraps, but I think I was mostly laughing at our stupidity in believing such a thing. I also wonder if the ads are partly playing into the ridiculous stereotype that women shouldn’t have power positions because we become monster PMSers half the month. I’m not sure they’re trying to undermine that stereotype, so the only other explanation I have is working with it. Really complex, but I have to say I would hire Dandelion after seeing the work they put into Men with Cramps! I mean, if I were a multinational corporation looking to sell women more monthly products. Which I’m not.

  6. Elise says:

    Now, THAT is a thing of beauty. It works so beautifully on so many levels. Bravo.

  7. […] An earlier re: Cycling post about a clever viral marketing strategy that exploited the notion of mal… reminded me of some other ways that men have tried to appropriate aspects of the menstrual mythos for their own interests. […]

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