If an argument still needs to be made that cultural attitudes toward the menstrual cycle vary tremendously from place to place, despite the biological universality of the phenomenon, perhaps the clearest source of proof lies in variations in advertising practices. For instance, consider a recent TV ad from Russia. (WARNING: Viewing of the ad might not be suitable for all audiences due to its depiction of extreme violence.)
The ad employs several of the oldest tropes in menstrual product marketing and then mixes in a piece of menstrual folk lore (an old husbands’ tale?) with a new spin. Two women, one dark haired in a black swimsuit and one a blond in a white suit, are seen in conventionally glamorous poses as they enter the sea to the strains of a romantic Hollywood orchestral sound track for a refreshing dip at a beautiful beach. They begin to swim, about 50 yards apart from each other. Suddenly, a huge shark surfaces under the woman in the black suit, taking her in its jaws as she screams. Parts of her body fall off before the shark hits the water with her in its mouth and disappears. Meanwhile, the woman in white calmly stays in the same place untroubled by any fear as the product name and tag line appears on the right side of the screen above her: “Tampax: Now Leak-proof.” The words are also spoken aloud by a male voice-over.
Now we see the references to swimming and wearing white as little ironic commentaries on the clichés of menstrual product advertising and learn that those matters are trivial compared to the real worry menstruating women must deal with: attracting sharks! (Perhaps there will be a sequel featuring bears.) Unfortunately, though the woman in black had taken a necessary precaution in her choice of swimsuit color, she made the mistake of choosing an inferior menstrual product that made her vulnerable to shark attraction. Apparently the shark myth is trans-cultural.
The ad takes an additional shot at destabilizing menstrual protocols by employing a tough-sounding male announcer to do the tag line, a role customarily reserved for women.
From an American perspective the first thought is that this never could have been used in a campaign in the U.S. However, it is hard to pin down just why. Like the famous “Beaver” ad from Australia, this piece, despite its tongue-in-cheek mockery, is too blatant. By comparison, American ads, particularly for conventional pads and tampons, nearly always have a coy tone, a wink and a nudge, that suggests that, despite our self-celebrated frankness and claims of liberation from shame and embarrassment, we still harbor lots of deep-seated, good old fashioned prudery.
The real question is, will an ad like this sell the product? Surely shark phobia is not so wide spread in Russia, a country with few shark-infested waters, that women will opt for this additional selling point. No, this ad is typical of the post-modern approach that sets out to shock or entertain the viewer rather than tout the merits of the product. The desired response is to create so much buzz that viewers will say to friends or to companions ignoring the screen, “Hey, did you see that Tampax ad where the shark eats the woman?” Advertisers these days are increasingly in the business of meme creation.
And in a country that has enthusiastically embraced the shark-attack aspects of consumer capitalism, this ad just might be a fitting metaphor.
This brings us to the dark side of the ad. Its violence against women is appalling. Sure, it’s meant to be quirky and transgressive and to mock some of the worn out images that have dominated menstrual product advertising for decades, but while doing so it offers up an image of a woman being torn apart followed by a macho male voice implying that if the stupid victim had only had the good sense to buy the product that he was advocating this unfortunate fate would not have befallen her. Will women never learn?
(Thanks to Karina Billini for alerting me to his one.)