Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Little Girls! Just Say Yes to Your Dreams!

March 18th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

Seen this one yet? (or the (eerily) related “Birth Control on the Bottom“?)

We posted “Sassy Girlz Candy Birth Control Pills” (written by Carissa Leone in 2011) in our regular installment Weekend Links on Feb 2. I had a mixed reaction. And when a couple re:Cycling readers described the video as “nasty,” I knew we needed to dig in a bit.

Let’s discuss.

There’s something very absurdly funny about eating birth control, even if the women are still tweens and the birth control is merely mulit- colored jelly beans intended to get young girls in the pill-popping groove before they are saddled with a baby and an half-finished high school education.

First of all, women CAN eat their birth control, donchaknow… Warner Chilcott brought to market their chewable, spearmint flavor oral contraceptive, Femcon Fe, for women who have difficulty swallowing pills and apparently, find stopping for 30 seconds to swallow water.

But I digress (I guess I just want to be clear that we are ALREADY munching our pills).

It is hard not to love how this sketch takes down the pandering to the girl tween market. Oh lordy. There’s so much potential there! (one estimate figures that kids aged 8-12 years are spending $30 billion OF THEIR OWN MONEY and nagging their parents to spend another $150 billion annually!) Little girls quickly move from Disney to diets, from fingerpaint to fake eyelashes, from tutus to belly shirts…..I have seen it with my own girls and it feels, frankly, like an inexorable force.

Viral sketch writer Carissa Leone graciously replied to my questions regarding the piece. When I asked her what inspired her, she channeled her Women’s Studies training (go team!) and supplied her two main reasons:

(1) “I saw a little girl on the subway,holding a baby doll in one of those pretend baby slings…and I thought, “If only she really knew what motherhood was like. I wonder if anyone has explained the authentic experience. I wish she were carrying a briefcase and reading a teeny issue of Ms. magazine instead… “


(2) “The idea that women can/should have it all, in terms of relationships and families and career still seems to be put forth as a tangible (and”correct”) goal in Western culture. It’s a pressure I and many other peers feel, and one that I don’t think is truly possible, or necessarily awesome.”

And Big Pharma takes a hit, too, per the spot’s director, Brian Goetz, who offered this when I asked him about what led to the sketch:

“I wanted to do the video because the script spoke so well to the branding of pharmaceutical commercials, where no matter what the product, as long as you say there’s a problem and that you have the solution, throw some happy people and fun b-roll in it, you’ve got a successful campaign. On top of that, it’s always fun to legitimize terrible ideas in sketch comedy. And if that means having multi-colored jelly bean birth control pills, all the better.”

But I think there’s more to it that that.

Why do I find myself laughing and crying at the same time? Well, I just finished my advance copy of Holly Grigg-Spall’s forthcoming Sweetening the Pill  or How We Became Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control (out this Spring with Zero Books). In it (and here as well, on this blog), Grigg-Spall makes the case the hormonal contraceptives have become so normative that we, as consumers, permit an imperfect (at best) product to flourish even while other options may be more appropriate. The one-pill-fits-all mindset is so pervasive and bores in so deep, so young, Grigg-Spall argues, that when someone says, ‘hey! I don’t want to be on the pill,’ these—what she calls “pill refugees” — are hastily branded as irresponsible, antifeminist, or just plain dumb. That is, the pill gets constructed as our savior, our liberator, our saving grace, even when its not.

And that’s where this spoof enters….since the pill IS all these things, let’s get those girlies on board NOW! Why wait? Good habits start young, after all. And product loyalty is not just for toothpaste and laundry detergent….

And so, “Sassy Girlz Candy Birth Control Pills” is super smart feminist critique. It calls out the enduring wrongheadnessness of romanticizing motherhood and co-opting what I would call a tragically hollowed-out pseudo feminism harnessed to push product:

  • Little girls playing Mommy is cute, and kinda bullshit!
  • Its never too early to teach little girls about options!
  • She’ll know that birth control means winning a college scholarship

Yup. There’s lots of problems with that. Thanks to the feminist satirists to help us see.

But I have to say one more thing.

Leone and I discussed (what I consider) the unfortunate below-the-belt invocation of gender dysphoria to as she put it, “most absurd, heightening beat” in the sketch (here’s another, more recent example of same, on SNL). I don’t think trans or gender queer or otherwise gender variant people should ever serve as punchlines, as I told Leone so in our email exchange. When I inquired about this moment in an otherwise spot-on sketch, she said that is was never intended it as a negative perception of transgendered kids. But still  it is, and I think it points with a big fat finger at how much work we still need to do to move trans issues from margin to center.

Let’s push forward without leaving anyone behind. Let’s laugh at feminist satire that avoids (even unintended) transphobia. Let’s keep our targets clear and our allies clearer. Let’s say YES to that dream, for real.

Early German Menstrual TV Advertising

February 26th, 2013 by David Linton

It is axiomatic that advertising commonly reflects and reinforces social values. At other times, by introducing new products or new perspectives on existing products, advertising serves as an agent of social change. Nowhere are these two phenomena more evident than in ads for menstrual products.

On one hand, when ads tell consumers that a particular device will guarantee secrecy or the avoidance of embarrassment, they perpetuate the shame factor that is deeply embedded in the social construction of menstruation. But on the other hand, when ads promise greater freedom of movement and social engagement, they make a contribution to undermining the notion that the period is a physically and socially debilitating event.

It is especially interesting to observe these processes at work in the context of varied social and historical settings. Though the menstrual cycle is a biological universal, its cultural significance is as mutable as any other human condition. For instance, consider the attached TV ad for Tampax, which is the first ad for a menstrual product to appear on German television.

Before we even know what the product is we learn that it has to do with some sort of perfection. Against a black screen the following words appear:

Stets Makellos. . . (Always Impeccable)
Freiheit in Sauberkeit (Freedom via Cleanliness)

Three brief vignettes follow set in countries that only a decade before were mortal enemies and are now depicted as role models for modern women. In the U.S. we see that modern women work in an office and that there’s a peculiar new word that has something to do with relieving work pressure: “Tampax.” Next, we visit a jazz club in Paris where sophisticated women also share the secret magical word that seems to make it possible for them to hang out in nightclubs. It’s some kind of password or incantation. Then we hit the beach in Italy, which was at the time this ad was created in the mid-1950s, was becoming a favorite destination for German tourists. Again the magic word, “Tampax,” has something to do with the fact that these attractive young women in their two-piece bathing suits can frolic in the surf.

Finally, we are told, “And now also in Germany,” accompanied by an image of a damaged Brandenburg Gate and two other German landmarks, and we get to see the product and find out what it is. By now the product is nearly a magic wand which, when waved while whispering the secret word “Tampax,” can result in an easier work day, fun evenings of dancing, and worry-free days at the beach. But while those are the characteristics of American, French, and Italian women’s lives due to Tampax, German women, if they adopt this “world brand, with applicator,” are promised “perfection of female hygiene.” And to drive the point home, a stern looking woman dressed in what looks like a nurse’s uniform, assures the women gathered around her and watching at home on television that if they use Tampax to manage their periods they will be, “Safe and Clean.”

There are many striking things about this ad, not the least of which is the stereotypical view of German concern for cleanliness which, in this case, takes precedence over the hedonism of those French and Italian women — although American women are depicted as hard workers (note the way the office worker assaults her typewriter). And note the specific reference to the fact that Tampax uses an applicator. The chief competition for Tampax in Germany was the o.b. tampon which was invented in 1947 and does not use an applicator. At the time the marketers of Tampax believed that German women would respond to the same appeal to fastidiousness that American women exhibited in their desire to avoid touching themselves too intimately. However, o.b. did become the German tampon of choice, far outselling the American competitor. Though the woman at the end of the ad is costumed like a nurse, the appeal to hygiene and hospital sterility did not tip the scale in favor of Tampax.

About thirty years later a reversal of this tampon competition occurred when the owners of the o.b. brand tried to take on the American market by promoting the superiority of using a tampon without an applicator. That campaign also failed, though its story reveals more nuances regarding the ever-evolving role of menstrual perspectives across cultures. A future post will delve into that chapter of menstrual history.

“My Daughter, My Advice”

February 18th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Strange ad copy for an actor without children. But it’s celebrity flashback Monday! Brenda Vaccaro is one of a small number of celebrities who appeared in femcare advertising after she was famous. (Others include tennis star Serena Williams and gymnast Cathy Rigby and Mary Lou Retton.) Cheryl Tiegs, Susan Dey, and Cybill Shepherd all appeared in print ads before they became famous models and actors.

Shameless, Part 2

February 7th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Chella Quint, Adventures in Menstruating

So I like the new Mooncup ad for lots and lots of period positive reasons.

Here it is again:

I watched it, I enjoyed it, I shared it, but I couldn’t ignore this other blog post title forming in my head after the first viewing:

“OMG! They’ve used an educational rap!” say several slam poets and rap battlers (including a statistically small number of female rap battlers) at once as they collectively facepalm.

Yeah, so, there’s that. A number of readers will know I perform regularly on the spoken word scene and I’m on my university’s slam team. Lately, there’s been a little more slam/battle crossover in the spoken word universe, so I thought I’d check in with a few pals for some peer review. They’ve each agreed to weigh in below on their impressions of the video’s effectiveness from a wordsmith’s perspective.

Sticking with the marketing point of view though, cultural appropriation of rap for commercial purposes is such an old trope that it’s more status quo than newsworthy. In fact, in this particular advert, I really think that the usual criticism is mostly offset by the genuine use of rap as protest against disposables.

Interesting as it might be to me, I know that the femcare industry and most consumers don’t need to read a peer review of the authenticity of the rap battle. I had a hunch that Mooncup’s choice to adhere to some of the conventions of the genre has actually helped them get the message across more effectively (and certainly more effectively than more typical #OMGRAP ads currently making the rounds).

I don’t think it’s a gratuitous use of rap. I think it’s a well observed and effective pastiche.

When I got in touch with Mooncup last week to get the stats for last Friday’s post, I also checked out the origin story for the rap battle. Kath Clements, their Campaigns and Marketing manager, was happy to share their process:

“It was a real collaborative effort between Mooncup and [the ad agency] St. Luke’s. We needed a device for positioning a debate and a conceptual framework – we put it in our natural habitat which is the toilet! We were aware we were appropriating a thing with cultural connotations, so we tried to do it with finesse.”

I asked her about how it was written, and she told me that St. Luke’s worked with a producer who battles in his free time, and liked the concept enough to help them out and write it pro bono. He also coached the actors who play Tampon (who has actually rapped before in her own right) and MCUK (I just got that joke), who appeared in Mooncup’s last viral ad campaign.

With that insight, it looked to me like I could analyse the battle in good conscience. See, I really like the wordplay, puns and syncopation of classic freestyling, and my twelve-year-old self delightedly and ignorantly partook in gentle games of The Dozens with my middle school pals. The casual sexism and homophobia that I’ve witnessed on the current battle scene puts me off, though. I valued this ad’s depiction of women in a rap battle scenario. So I wanted to check out my theory that the quality of the pastiche and the rhyme are part of the payoff for this ad.

The first bit of commentary comes from Harry Baker, who’s been on Don’t Flop but who also raps about maths and slams about dinosaurs, both of which are more my speed.

“I think it’s almost too obvious that it’s made up of key statistics made to rhyme, but I guess that is the point of the advert. Things like the ‘no strings attached’ line would get a reaction from a crowd probably. So first reaction is ‘eye roll’ + ‘rap to get down with the kids’ but the rhyme/hook is there. For me I’m fine with it being a rap battle between two women, and it makes sense as a way of A vs B advert information, but the rhymes themselves aren’t really good enough to get away with it, or do the genre justice – I guess it’s good they want to use the format in mainstream media (pastiche is a great word) but what I would watch for/do in a rap battle is the intricate word play and rhyme schemes which I feel this lacks!”

Next up was Paula Varjack, originator and host of the Anti-Slam:

“Cheesy rap as an advertising device has been in effect since the eighties. I think the device only works if the rhymes are very clever or funny or both. Like a bad slam poem this doesn’t totally work as its more didactic than clever, and definitely not funny enough. I’m not sure I would have watched to end unless you asked me, and it’s only a minute and a half long. But as advertising for menstrual products go, it’s nice to not have abstract scenes of tennis playing and the like and I did actually glean info about Mooncups. Also I give them a couple points for rhyming mental with lentil.”

So the first two responses swung more toward the #OMGRAP side of the cringe-o-meter.

Shameless. Or, How To Make An Ethical Femcare Ad.

February 1st, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Chella Quint, Adventures in Menstruating

I saw a femcare ad that I actually liked.

I know, right? I don’t even know who I am anymore.

I’m kidding. I’m exactly the same person. It’s the ad that’s different.

Now. I don’t promote individual femcare companies. I do ad analysis. As long as femcare adverts remain the loudest voice in the menstrual discourse, I’ll keep encouraging people to use social media to create a two-way conversation and to increase their advertising literacy. Since I started this project, though, I’ve longed to see an ad that was period positive: that didn’t use shame to sell or use humour at the expense of menstruators. This is the first one I’ve ever seen.

It’s a viral video that’s been put out this week by Mooncup UK, a small (but growing), ethical company producing reusable, medical grade silicone menstrual cups. The ad directly challenges the current market leaders and promotes their own product without once dipping into the fear/embarrassment/secrecy triumvirate used throughout the history of femcare.

Here’s the ad:

And here’s the analysis:

Like a number of femcare ads that have made news over the past couple of years, it’s funny, viral, and sends itself up.

Where previous ads by bigger brands have gotten it wrong, though, it’s usually been because there were still echoes of the history of shame, fear and manufactured problems that could all be solved by the product. Ads for disposables somehow never seeming to mention the inconvenient truth (thanks, Al) about landfills and waste.

But the Mooncup ad works because:

They have a massively on-message USP. The unique selling point is that it’s reusable for years. Those who prefer tampons to pads could be persuaded to make the switch. I know many people who have sung their praises for ages, and while I’ve been doing the Adventures in Menstruating project, their company’s reach has grown far beyond its Brighton offices, and awareness around menstrual cups generally (a number of companies produce silicone and latex menstrual cups around the world), has spread, mostly by word of mouth, small distributors, and a few clever ad campaigns.

Brand loyalty for products that you don’t need to replace often is built through trust, reliability, and integrity. It’s a classic advertising model, but it’s usually applied to big ticket items like cars. Gives a whole new meaning to Think Small.

I’m aware that there are very different business models working with a one off purchase vs. repeat purchase disposables. If tampon companies respond, it’d be refreshing if they used what I like to call the Ocean Breeze Soap model. (Tampons are convenient in a pinch. Just like other disposable products are handy for the same reason. It would be way better for the environment if we used fewer convenience products, but if you do choose to use a disposable product of any kind, we hope you’ll choose ours.) Disposable femcare companies can’t deny their carbon footprint, but they frequently take the lazy option and distract consumers with shame and fear.

Shame is out of the equation. Its persuasive powers aren’t tainted by the classic canon of leakage fear, invisibility, euphemisms like ‘comfort’ or ‘freshness’, or that mysterious blue liquid. (Okay seriously – what IS that stuff? Do they use water with food colouring? Wildberry fruit punch? What?) They don’t need to use shame – no femcare company does.

They have a convincing argument backed up by statistics (that they are willing to share and which you are welcome to read and critique further). This ad lists the reasons why menstrual cups are better in a direct product comparison: better for your body, better value financially, and better for the environment than disposables. (In the style of a rap battle. But I’ll come back to that in my next post next week.)

I emailed Mooncup and requested data to back up the claims, and they, impressively, sent it straight over:

Source: no of tampons (22 per period)

Source: tampons absorb “everything”

Source: Mooncups hold 3x as much as a tampon

PLEASE NOTE: Gram to millilitre conversion:15 g= 15 ml.

Mooncup A (2011) contains 29.3 ml

Mooncup B (2011) contains 28.8 ml

See pg 6 of the AHPMA UK Code of Practice for Tampon Manufacturers & Distributors 2010 for tampon absorbency figures.

The ad works on two levels. Like Sesame Street. Sticking with the childhood metaphors for a minute here, femcare product users are kinda like belly buttons: there are innies and outies. Some menstruators prefer insertion methods of catching menstrual blood while it’s still inside the body, like disposable tampons or reusable menstrual cups. Others prefer to use external pads (disposable or reusable, including a few designs that are built into trendy underwear). There are also a few outliers – a small number of menstruators who choose to use nothing at all. (A couple of contributors to Adventures in Menstruating #6 product tested Nothing, with interesting results.)

The target audience for this ad – on the surface – is the innies: people who are not squeamish about blood or tampons, don’t mind insertion methods and would be more likely to consider swapping to a menstrual cup than pad users (although the ad briefly mentions pads at the end…on the off chance).

We’re Ripe for the Third Talk, Actually!!

December 20th, 2012 by Ashley Ross

No question – Poise’s Second Talk Campaign is undeniably courageous, taking on Menopause, the Previously Unmentionable. Call me impatient and unappreciative, but I just can’t help mourning the missed opportunity to REALLY empower women, instead of aligning with those unrelenting forces bent on squeezing the Mojo from the second half of our lives.

Seeped as I am in the journey of menopause, (my own, and as co-creator of the Menopausal Mojo Teleseminar program), my curiosity was cautiously piqued when I opened the Poise link in this blog post  last month. (Cautious because, after all, Poise is an incontinence product and the association is not only anxiety provoking but inadvertently quantizes my experience into a demeaning and unimaginative metaphor — something like shame meets discouragement meets insult. Sorry, that’s just how it feels to me. Let it be known, I am not in denial here – it has been a while since I could safely jump on a trampoline with anything in my bladder.)

Nevertheless — someone is talking publicly about menopause. And I am certainly curious to see what aspect of this rich, challenging and potentially transformative experience they are choosing to highlight.

The first thing we see: “8 in 10 women agree, it’s time to change the way we think about menopause”.

YES!!! What we’ve been saying all along, my wonderful co-conspirator, Karen Clothier (creator of the body-mind-spirit focused and unexpectedly successful Menopause the Magical Telesummit) and me. We find ourselves coming back again and again to feeling the urgent need to rebrand menopause. We clearly do want another way to understand peri/menopause. After hundreds of years of agents of the male paradigm systematically dismantling our authority of our experience, using shame to silence our inherent collaborative tendencies, we have lost the language to talk about the transformative experience of our 40’s and 50’s – as we move from fertile women to mature women, from “child bearer’s to bearers of wisdom” (Kristi Meisenbach Boylan The Seven Sacred Rites of Menopause).

Clearly the difficulty begins with the term “menopause” itself. The term was coined in 1812 by the French physician de Gardanne and is defined as (a moment in time) 12 months after the last menstrual period. A little hard to acknowledge a rite of passage when its beginning, middle and end are as elusive, instantaneous and vague as that. But that’s not all, that’s simply the scientific use of the word. Our everyday use of it also describes perimenopause (the 5-10 year period before the Moment-In-Time) as well as post-menopause (an unspecified period after the Moment-In-Time). Confused yet?

Small wonder that we need new, updated language, imagery, descriptions, mythology and role-models — a full-spectrum, holographic map to describe the physical, emotional and spiritual terrain of our midlife experience.

Wait, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Back to the Poise menopause page, and how it misleads women by reducing this remarkable transition into … yes, you got it … SYMPTOMS. As if symptoms are the menopausal experience. And the successful management of said symptoms is all there is to this phase of our life cycle. Tragically reductionist, when seen from the perspective of how insidiously the media molds our reality. This is brilliantly elucidated in Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s movie Miss Representation, which shows “the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women … to feel powerful.”

“Disparaging”. Hold that thought while we listen to Dr. Jennifer Berman, Poise’s menopause and intimacy expert, describing mood swings. In the clip  “What’s the DEAL with my moodswings”*, does she validate our experience and perhaps suggest that our emotions might be valuable indicators of our experience? Does she acknowledge the virtually universal need of women at this stage to retreat (I would venture to say the developmental milestone in the female psyche to withdraw and self-reflect), and then acknowledge how at odds with our externally driven, production oriented culture this urge is? Perhaps she suggests that THAT might be the reason WHY our moods are swinging – that our emotions are accurately reflecting the environmental imbalance of the whole paradigm? Wouldn’t it be the moment for Poise, and all those interested in empowering women, to ask this crucial question: why are we making menopause all about what’s wrong with us?

Here’s what the good doctor says:   “Moodswings are very common during the perimenopause and menopause.  Women will describe symptoms of feeling more irritable and short fused, more weepy and depressed, more (uh) anxious and sort of, (uh) difficulty concentrating …and that’s very common during perimenopause, and it tends to level out, to some degree, as women approach menopause.”

Firstly, is it just me or is her tone patronizing? Is she explaining anything new here and offering solutions as promised? Is she even answering the question: “What’s the DEAL with my moodswings”?!

Now of course I see what a masterful campaign Poise have created here. They’ve captured an untapped market, have obviously paid close attention to the terms used by women in their focus group and have echoed the aspirations of menopausal women to save us from our Symptoms.

How much more interesting would it be if they used the global reach and collective power of the internet to invite us to create new language and ways to define our midlife experience that go beyond complaining about hot flashes (see “personal stories” on the site)? Ladies, instead of letting them reduce our experience to managing our symptoms, let’s demand inspiring stories about how we are stepping into the second half of our lives with the Mojo that comes from accessing our collective wisdom, our wizened humor and our well-earned self-respect. Now that’s a branding campaign worth following.

Happiness Is in the Eye of the Beholder

October 22nd, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Chella Quint, Adventures in Menstruating

When periods hit the news, and they do every now and again (no, not once a month – that’d actually be nice, and proof that it was a normal, neutral topic of conversation), my friends have me on speed dial. I’ve been hanging with my Off the Shelf Festival pals this week, though, and was apparently experiencing some kind of menses media blackout, because I was none the wiser about the latest Bodyform brouhaha until I got a Facebook message from my friend Bill that said ‘Quite remarkable’ with a link to a New Statesman article entitled Fighting Snark With Snark: Bodyform viral video destroys commenter.

So I clicked the link.

Nutshell: a guy recycled an old joke about femcare ads being unrealistic (This was at the expense of his girlfriend, whose period apparently resembles scenes from the Exorcist. Nice work. You’re a real charmer.) to made a tongue-in-cheek jab at the company, posted it on their facebook page, a zillion people ‘liked’ it (although there is this ‘fake likes’ issue so I do wonder a little – genuinely – not a lot, but a little), and the brand replied with a viral video, which only took a week to turn around.

Check it out:

Analysis: First thoughts? I did say I like a two-way conversation, but damn. There’s nothing more two-way than a brand adbusting an adbuster. He’s hardly destroyed though. He’s made rather a lot of, addressed repeatedly by name, and given an awful lot of attention. They put the response together in a week, which is only a few days longer than I’ve taken with some of my ad parodies, and they made a whole film with acceptable production values and neat touches. (Right at the end, the mobile phone rings with the classic Bodyform ad as a ringtone, and then the correct part of the song picks up to carry on as non-diagetic sound for the outro. Classy.) The guy in question was an easy target, though, and commented in a way that amusingly got under the skin of a femcare company with the following message: periods are horrible, women on their period are out of control, and Bodyform were terrible for pretending it was all sunshine and flowers. So in the clever-clever video, Bodyform duly apologise for pretending periods were about unrelated lovely fun things, etc., but – here’s the kicker – then agreed that periods are totally horrible – so horrible that nothing to do with them can be shown on screen, and the truth makes grown men cry.

By the time I’d watched it, though, my pal Seonaid over on the west coast of the US had caught up and sent me a link from an ad website, with simply ‘Awesome’ written above it. Huh. Seonaid is a hip cool lady and knows her stuff. She thought it was awesome, thought of me, and sent it straight over. So I watched it again. The (FAKE! TOTALLY FAKE! A DUDE OWNS THAT!) CEO pouring out some blue liquid from a pitcher into a glass and then the recall of her drinking it at the end, that was pretty funny – really sound visual comedy, and the fart was a great afterthought (Teasing a guy for thinking women are classical and not grotesque? That’s a good gag. Oh yeah – playing by the rules of signers in femcare ads, though, she totally drank from a big old pitcher of blood. But I digress.) The original post is a riff on an old joke that people throw around all the time about unrealistic femcare ads of the ’80s, but this time someone actually told the joke to the brand itself using social media, which many people found refreshing.

It was a tweet from my Sheffield buddy Saul that I’d most like to respond to:

Saul Cozens ‏@saulcozens: @chellaquint is this a step in the right direction … it still feels a bit too coy but it isn’t trying to hide anything

Good shout, Saul. I wasn’t sure either. Incidentally – I met Saul after he saw my TEDx Sheffield talk, which is a potted history of femcare advert messages. So if you add my femcare research background, my fanzine shenanigans, my natural skepticism, and my initial reactions to the Bodyform video, when I read this tweet I went back and watched the video again, not with the surprise and glee expressed by most of the people who’ve analysied this story for articles that are now cropping up in feminist blogs, ad industry press and in the mainstream media, but with a need to work out why everybody seemed to love it, and I was left with a bad taste in my mouth.

I hate to be a killjoy. I love joy. I’d be joy’s EMT, do joy CPR…heck – I’d even take a bullet for joy. But this facebook commenter’s post and the response, while funny on the surface, and clearly a lesson for all the advertisers and quite a few filmmakers, isn’t all it seems.

As we saw earlier in the summer, Facebook posts on femcare pages do garner attention, and Bodyform were right to respond (although if Femfresh had responded saying anything other than ‘You’re right, our stuff is pointless, possibly harmful, and we are slowly learning how to say the words vulva and vagina in pubic. PUBLIC. We mean public. Dammit.’ their product would have tanked immediately, which would have made lots of extra space on the shelf for reusable femcare products like menstrual cups, but been rather bad for their business). Femfresh should have responded this way, but either didn’t have the brand knowhow, or knew they had something to hide, and sarcasm couldn’t make it better. I made a spoof ad in response to that Femfresh campaign, you know. Not to go into a sulk or anything, but I’m a little disappointed they didn’t make me my own movie. I’m not in it for the attention – I do this because I want people to engage with their media environment – but at least after that case and this one we know for sure that femcare companies are hanging on our every word. It’s too bad that so far they only respond when there’s an easy target who’s comment plays right into theirh hands. Because this guy’s post and the ‘you asked for it, buddy’ reply both play up the same stereotypes of ‘all periods suck’, ‘all women are hormonal and out of control’ and ‘all men have to either deal with it or be shielded from this horror’ which is not very period positive, and throws in some mental health and physical disability stuff right in there with the sexism. I think the way to explain period positive to people is: the woman is not the butt of the joke.

Here’s his comment (sic):

Hi , as a man I must ask why you have lied to us for all these years . As a child I watched your advertisements with interest as to how at this wonderful time of the month that the female gets to enjoy so many things ,I felt a little jealous. I mean bike riding , rollercoasters, dancing, parachuting, why couldn’t I get to enjoy this time of joy and ‘blue water’ and wings !! Dam my penis!! Then I got a girlfriend, was so happy and couldn’t wait for this joyous adventurous time of the month to happen … lied !! There was no joy , no extreme sports , no blue water spilling over wings and no rocking soundtrack oh no no no. Instead I had to fight against every male urge I had to resist screaming wooaaahhhhh bodddyyyyyyfooorrrmmm bodyformed for youuuuuuu as my lady changed from the loving , gentle, normal skin coloured lady to the little girl from the exorcist with added venom and extra 360 degree head spin. Thanks for setting me up for a fall bodyform , you crafty bugger.

Bodyform were eating this stuff up though. It follows the classic advertising technique where the company has to convince you that you have a problem, before they can solve it for you. If you think periods are ok, you probably won’t have a lot of time for people who seem afraid to talk about it. But if you are a company that targets people who think periods are gross, this is right up their menstrual street. Which is why their response video intro on their page says:

We loved Richard’s wicked sense of humour. We are always grateful for input from our users, but his comment was particularly poignant. If Facebook had a “love” button, we’d have clicked it. But it doesn’t. So we’ve made Richard a video instead. Unfortunately Bodyform doesn’t have a CEO. But if it did she’d be called Caroline Williams. And she’d say this.

See what I mean about the totally fake CEO? She’s a made up character. Which reminds me – Richard’s girlfriend is a nameless, faceless possessed child. There are no women in the fake focus group (the fake-us group? the faux-cus group?). There are no real women anywhere in this exchange, with no real voice – they’re simply spoken about. Yet loads of women enjoyed watching it all unfold. I’d imagine the ‘battle of the sexes’ trope provides for a satisfying ‘smug male’ smackdown. I suspect some women who really do have horrendous periods caused by underlying medical conditions may have felt vindicated to finally see their take on things put across on screen. It’s definitely funny that the only graphic description of periods in the ad is accompanied by a subtle zoom out that takes in a conveniently placed plate of red jelly (that’s Jell-o or generic gelatin dessert, for speakers of US English). The eating and drinking menstrual blood metaphors are a little surreal – I’m not sure if they were going for vampire or cannibal, but these bits add a quiet menace that keeps up the horror movie theme running through the whole thing, just in time for Halloween.

Bodyform could have taken this opportunity to tell the real truth: that periods are part of a bigger cycle, can be anything from painful to annoying to no big deal to an exuberant turn up for the ‘not pregnant!’ books, or just, you know, a sign that you are in good reproductive health and everything’s ticking over nicely, like your pulse, and your blood pressure and your peak flow and stuff like that.

For some people, it’s just fine, you know. Periods are a part of life – like every other bodily function. We call them bodily functions because most of the time, they’re functional. Stuff works. And when it doesn’t work, like with this awful cough and head cold combo that is sweeping the UK right now (I hope this makes it into some professor’s pandemic prediction algorithm, but I’m nerdy like that…), you get cranky and irritable and may feel short tempered, like my wife does right now. I don’t think she’s acting like a character from The Exorcist, though. I think she has a head cold, and I will probably buy her some ginger ale to sip and try not to bug her too much. Like I said, this guy sounds like a real charmer. Bodyform is his target, but it’s at his girlfriend’s expense, and she’s not the only one on the receiving end of the putdowns.

The original post is at a woman’s expense. It’s written in a patronisingly innocent tone toward Bodyform, and the butt of the joke is the man’s girlfriend – a woman whose period causes her to become, quote, “the little girl from the exorcist with added venom and extra 360 degree head spin”. He does call out their outrageous adverts, but not for implying that women’s real bodily functions are normal. He says (and Bodyform sticks with this view in its response) that women lose it during their periods, which are unmentionably horrible, and men are the real victims.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed. There are a number of dissenting voices in the comments on the Facebook page, calling this stuff out, but many of these commenters are dismissed with replies that are patronising or accuse the poster of, charmingly, not being able to take a joke because they are currently on their period.

Here are a couple:

I estimate about 25% of the female responses on here are very aggressive towards Richard, even though he was clearly just making a joke. Hmmm what on earth could be currently causing about a quarter of women to act like psychos, lacking any form of reason or logic? – Chris Dubuis

Lol, seems like half the woman on this post have their monthly friend. Good thing Richard is on their mind! – Paul Antoniuk

Here’s one from a woman who wanted those who were not amused to shut up:

Very clever Richard and I like the companies come back……. both VERY clever……… LIGHTEN UP LADIES…….. it’s a joke, a HA HA, a giggle, snicker and or snort…… it’s all for fun……. I found it amuzing, thank you for writing this Richard. it was a hoot – Linda-Lee Bosma

Wow. Effective reinforcing of negative messages, Bodyform. But here are a couple of commenters who do a better job than Bodyform in terms of injecting some fair representation and role reversal into your humour:

Richard, sometimes a man just needs a little more game in order to get a date with a skydiver, dancer, biker, surfer or rock musician. Keep trying, buddy, and good luck. – Liisa Pine Schoonmaker

@Richard…I train at a MMA gym..I train in Muay Thai Kickboxing, regular boxing, and BJJ. I do it while my “Happy Period” is in session. I don’t let it slow ME down. I also do the fun stuff like dancing and amusement parks. So, I guess they must have made the advertisement about me… – Lorelle Massageworks

They did have a particular target in mind for their advert, but it’s not the person above, it’s not Richard specifically, or men generally, or women who have painful periods. The whole thing’s a smokescreen. The truth rocks up 45 seconds into the viral video, when the C.E.FAUX (That works, right?) says:

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but there’s no such thing as a happy period.”

She looks straight into the camera, delivering a direct hit to the Always ‘Have a Happy Period’ campaign. (This tagline was in use in the US, more recently in the UK, and is still around in other European countries. It’s most well known for, ironically, a fake viral campaign that started out as a McSweeney’s article, and coincidentally namechecked another fake exec, but this one was male.) It’s not ok to pretend all periods are a walk (rollerblade?) in the park, but the reverse is also true. It’s not all doom and gloom, and it’s irresponsible to insist it is. Even their focus group fake out (The voice over: “We ran a series of focus groups to gauge the public’s reaction to periods.” is run with clips of men crying while watching a screen we ca’t see.) Playing up the negative maintains the taboo even while trying to pretend to break it down. It may seem funny on the surface, but look below the blue liquid for a minute and things do get scary.

This ad isn’t just a coy game with Richard, though, and it’s not just complicit in supporting men’s negative feelings about periods and the people who have them, or even those annoying old ads. It’s a big ‘up yours’ (as it were) to Always, a coded message to potential customers to laugh along with them at the international maxi-pad market leader’s catchphrase, and a bit of (nearly) subliminal encouragement to jump ship and declare new brand loyalty with cheeky old Bodyform (which many Facebook page posters have now done, including one lady from Canada, who went so far as to say that she had never heard of Bodyform before, but should she ever be in the UK and have her period, she would seek their products out specially, in some new kind of uber-brand-loyalty I have never before seen, except in my head where I covet Smeg fridges and they populate my fantasy dreamhouse).

But back to the ad. Fakety-fake-faker Caroline ‘Fake’ Williams continues: “The reality is, some peopele simply can’t handle the truth.”

One perceptive Facebook commenter seems to reply directly to this:

Finally, at last, we have found value in the truth. By the way, just when was it that man first became incapable of handling the truth? Speaking of the truth, when did we stop telling the truth? Ah! There in lay the rub, If we don’t tell the truth, how on Earth are we going to be able to handle the truth, let alone ever know it when we hear it? – Bradley Acopulos

A good point. Simply saying you’re telling the truth doesn’t mean you actually are.

Bodyform uses a clever ploy but it just reminds me of Nick Clegg. (I guess at this point, Bodyform would say, ‘It’s called a metaphor, Richard.’) At 18 seconds in, the actor hired to impersonate a pretend CEO says: “We lied to you Richard, and I want to say sorry. Sorry.” At the Lib Dem party conference, Nick Clegg apololgised for promising he wouldn’t raise university tuition fees, when he should have been apologising for raising university tuition fees. Bodyform apologises to a guy for making periods look like fun, but they should be apologising to women for playing up to the stereotype that periods turn women into possessed little girls.

So. It was remarkable, Bill. I have felt the urge to remark upon it at lengt. It was awesome Seonaid. I am in awe at the irresponsible and seemingly irrepressible force behind age-old period stereotypes, propagated by people who do their research and should know better. And Saul, it was not a step in the right direction, they were being coy, and unless advertising changes radically, they’ve probably got plenty to hide.

Cross-posted at Adventures in Menstruating

Applauding the “Second Talk”

October 11th, 2012 by Heather Dillaway

In an effort to continue positive conversations about menopause, this blog entry is about Poise’s new “2nd talk” campaign. I was watching TV the other night and an advertisement for Poise’s menstrual pad came on. For once, I was actually happy to see a TV ad on menopause. The ad featured a video of a woman talking about how confusing menopausal symptoms are and what menopausal symptoms can be like, and how women need to talk about them. Menopause talk, then, is the “2nd talk” to which Poise ads are referring. Poise has developed an entire collection of “unscripted” stories from women experiences perimenopause, and it is well worth watching them. Visit the website! The premise is that while we do talk about menstruation (apparently the “1st talk”), we do not talk about menopause and we should. We should share, and we should inform, and this will make women feel better at menopause. Poise is trying to fill the gap by creating a forum for “2nd talk” on their website and in TV ads.

What a wonderful idea. Research has already shown that talking and sharing makes menopause (and any other reproductive health experience for that matter) better, and I’ve blogged about this before. We could debate Poise’s stance that the “1st talk” (menstrual talk) actually happens, but I think we do need to praise the writers of this ad campaign for prioritizing “2nd talk.” It reminds me somewhat of the Dove campaign on what women like about their bodies and while we can find plenty of ways to critique the writers of these campaigns, we can’t deny that they are moving in the right direction.

I hope we see more of this Poise ad campaign! Perhaps we ourselves can also all try to encourage “1st talk” and “2nd talk.” Lately it seems like a lot of the entries on re:Cycling are about opening doors for talking and sharing, and Poise may not be that far behind us.

Mortification Wars

October 9th, 2012 by David Linton

Recently menstrual shame made the front page of the New York Times in paragraph one of an article titled, “For Women in Street Stops, Deeper Humiliation.” The piece reported on an ongoing debate about the “stop and frisk” policies of the police who, seemingly at random, stop individuals in public places and pat them down or require them to empty their pockets and purses if the police have reason to suspect they are in possession of drugs, guns, or other illegal materials.  The opening sentence of the article by Wendy Ruderman presents a dramatic scene:

 Shari Archibald’s black handbag sat at her feet on the sidewalk in front of her Bronx home on a recent summer night.  The two male officers crouched over her leather bag and rooted around inside, elbow-deep.  One officer fished out a tampon and then a sanitary napkin, crinkling the waxy orange wrapper between his fingers in search of drugs.

The language is rife with invasive images: “crouched over,” “rooted around inside, elbow-deep,” “fished out a tampon,” “crinkled the … wrapper between his fingers.” It goes on to also have the officer handling her birth control package, further humiliating her.

Just a month later, again in the New York Times, this time a piece by their regular advertising columnist, Stuart Elliott, the following appeared: “In a Forthright Campaign, More Unmentionables Mentioned.”  Is anyone going to be surprised to learn what unmentionable was mentioned? Though the main topic was the new approach to advertising the laxative Senokot, Elliott links it to earlier restrictions against advertising menstrual products:

“Ads for products like laxatives, toilet paper, condoms and tampons have become more forthcoming as societal attitudes on what can be discussed in public . . . have significantly changes.  Consumers of a certain age can still recall ads for Modess sanitary napkins that uttered only two words, ‘Modess … because,’ well, because menstruation was deemed a taboo topic.”

There’s nothing new about this phenomenon nor about the titillating fascination with the taboo itself.  A few years ago (March 2008, p. 281) Glamour magazine ran a piece called, “Tampon mortification!” about the shame of dropping a tampon in public. But this time they turned it into a prank by staging the accident and photographing the responses. As the tag line put it, “We’ve all had a stray one fly out of our bag. But a boxful?  Volunteer Sabrina Fernandez lives the nightmare.”

The most noteworthy advertising campaign to confront the taboo in recent years has been the assertive and cleverly named U by Kotex series.  Comprised of little more than new packaging (black boxes containing neon colored applicators and envelopes for pads) and yet another punning slogan, “Break the Cycle,” the campaign urges women to flaunt their periods without shame.

Yet it is both weird and worrisome that the woman whose bag and arm we see in the ad apparently finds it necessary to carry an entire box full of the product with her rather than the usual few.  Should we be concerned?  Is she experiencing menorrhagia or, to the contrary, is this an expression of menstrual activism?

“Feminine Hygiene” and the Ultimate Double Standard

September 19th, 2012 by Breanne Fahs

Most women have had the unfortunate experience of realizing that they have started their periods at an inconvenient time or place, without proper “backup,” having to rely on (clunky and sporadically available) tampon dispensers in public restrooms.  When driving across the country last month, I stopped near Albuquerque at a small gas station and entered the unisex restroom frantically searching for a tampon machine.  Instead, I found a large, brightly-colored condom machine fastened prominently on the wall that featured four options: “ribbed for her pleasure” condoms, extra-large condoms, packages of lube, and a “grab bag” of “sexual surprises.”  A nearby wall above the toilet seat featured a prominent sign: DO NOT FLUSH FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCTS DOWN THE TOILET OR IT WILL CLOG OUR SYSTEM.  Feeling unusually irked by this duality—the cheery availability of (men’s) safer sex products and the utter disdain for women’s menstrual products—I reflected on the bigger problem of this gendered bathroom dilemma: Women’s bodies—leaky and troublesome—are too often constructed with the context of disease, contamination, and unhygienic fixations.  Men, on the other hand, receive props for their “leakages” as humorous, fun, playful, and sexy.  (I recently realized how rarely menstruation is treated with humor or fun when I felt an uncommon joy at bleeding into my black and blue skull-and-crossbones reusable Lunapads).

I loathe the term feminine hygiene for a host of reasons.  At its most benign, the term gives vague descriptors for what women use to manage their menstrual cycles, giving additional cultural momentum behind the general refusal to deal with nuance and specifics of a menstruating vagina (or vaginas at all, frankly).  When stores, advertisements, and signs evoke feminine hygiene, they suggest, linguistically, that the words tampon, pad, or cup seem scary.  The phrase feminine hygiene implies “products to keep the unkempt, unruly, unhygienic, dirty, unsanitary, bloody vagina in check,” rather than simply stating the actual terms for what women use.  (It also needlessly genders the already-gendered process of menstruation).  Why not use a less pejorative phrase like menstrual products?  The bizarre throwback to the 1950s represented by the continued use of feminine hygiene has serious trickle down effects on people’s attitudes about menstruation, as Elizabeth Kissling’s 2006 book, Capitalizing the Curse, showed that people still feel palpable anxiety about purchasing menstrual products in the store or discussing menstruation openly.  Many people do not even know the term menstrual or menstruation as commonly understood words.  I blame feminine hygiene for this.

Second, by framing menstrual products as products devoted to cleanliness and management of otherwise “vile” bodily fluids, feminine hygiene products get placed near products of excrement like diapers and incontinence merchandise in the store.  A typical sign will read: “Feminine Hygiene, Diapers, Personal Care” in these aisles of the grocery store.  Years ago, a student of mind visited over 25 grocery stores and pharmacies and found that nearly every single store placed tampons and pads directly beside diapers.  The use of hygiene here links menstrual blood with feces, urine, and products that infantilize women and their bodies.  It also implicitly links the feminine (another bizarre word that is rarely attached commercially to anything besides menstrual products) with women needing to clean their own and others’ messy bodies.

My third concern about feminine hygiene is that we don’t fully understand the history of the (d)evolving phrase.  As Andrea Tone found, feminine hygiene once referred to birth control rather than menstrual products.  A 1933 advertisement in McCalls for Lysol’s feminine hygiene products read:

The most frequent eternal triangle:


Fewer marriages would flounder around in a maze of misunderstanding and unhappiness if more wives knew and practiced regular marriage hygiene.  Without it, some minor physical irregularity plants in a woman’s mind the fear of a major crisis.  Let so devastating a fear recur again and again, and the most gracious wife turns into a nerve-ridden, irritable travesty of herself.

Translation: Use feminine hygiene (birth control) if you want to avoid your wife turning down sex because she’s scared of pregnancy.  Over the next twenty years, it later transitioned from a reference to birth control into a reference for female douches (An ad touted: “There are some things a husband just can’t mention to his wife!”) and finally into a phrase about managing menstruation.  Why this feminine hygiene phrase has stuck with us so forcefully, and why we insist on vague and unspecific terminology for menstrual products, relates directly to broader discourses of panic around, and ignorance about, women’s reproduction, menstruation, and vaginal health.  Just ask Todd Akin.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.