Will Kotex Break the Bank with “Break the Cycle” Campaign?

Advertising, anatomy, Disposable menstrual products, FemCare, Girls, Menstruation

This week, Kotex is launching a new campaign “that aims to encourage women to talk candidly and without embarrassment about periods and vaginal care”. Research statistics from the brand indicate that “vaginally-aware women” are more likely to have a positive body image (40% vs. 31%) and to be satisfied with their level of self-confidence (64% vs. 43%) and ability to express themselves (76% vs. 55%). In the same survey, 70% of women said they wish society would change the way it talks about vaginal health, but less than half feel like they can do anything about it.

Of course, this means new products from Kotex. But from where I sit, there’s little new here. The products seem to be the same old Kotex pads and tampons, now individually wrapped in bright, “fierce” colors instead of the usual pastels. The same old plastic applicators are now yellow, blue, or green, instead of just pink.  The anti-ad advertisement technique (see video at right) was pioneered by Sprite (a CocaColaTM product) in their mid-1990s “Image is Nothing. Obey Your Thirst.” campaign. The Sprite ad was featured in Douglas Rushkoff’s 2001 film, The Merchants of Cool, as an example of how corporate advertising appropriates youth culture to appeal to young people.

And that seems to be what Kotex is doing with “Break the Cycle.” The new web site has a hip, blocky style and multiple ways to interact with the company and with other customers (hello, Twitter! hi there, Facebook!). Quotes from girls and young women appear throughout the site, many in handwritten fonts. The FAQ file (“Real Answers“) features three answers to each question: one from a peer, one from a mom, and one from a health expert.

At the same time, this looks likes an honest effort to increase education and honesty about menstruation and vaginal health. Kotex surveyed 1,607 North American girls and women aged 14-35 about their knowledge of menstruation, vaginal health, and self-esteem and body image. The findings won’t surprise anyone at re:Cycling:

Chart summarizing some of findings from Kotex study.

  • Most women are satisfied with their personal relationships, self-confidence, and level of happiness – a majority describes themselves as intelligent, independent, and happy. However, the majority are not satisfied with what their body looks like and only a minority describe themselves as beautiful or sexy.
  • Many women think of their vaginal area as ugly and are self-conscious about what a potential sexual partner might think of how their vagina looks.

The specific findings about menstruation are sadly familiar; I recall finding similar statistics in a widely-cited survey conducted in 1981 on a similar population when I first began studying menstruation 20 years ago.

  • Society’s attitudes toward vaginal health – menstruation in particular – have had an effect on how women experience certain milestones, communicate with each other, and how they feel about

    • More than half of women (59%) felt awkward around others when they first got their period, and about 3 in 5 (62%) report that they felt uncomfortable discussing the experience with other people, even their close friends and family.
    • Though a majority (66%) say getting their period didn’t really change anything else about who they are or how they behave, more than half (55%) report that they became more self-conscious about their body once they started menstruating, and even now, more than half of women (54%) feel dirty when they have their period, and 2 in 3 (67%) don’t want people knowing when they’re menstruating.
    • One in three women (32%) think buying period products is embarrassing.
    • More than 4 in 5 (84%) say they feel the need to hide their tampon or pad on their way to the bathroom in a public place (e.g., work, school, restaurant) – more than half (54%) strongly agree with this statement.

Despite my cynicism about the ad and disappointment in plastic products, I am glad to see a femcare company promoting openness about menstruation and vaginal health. “Vaginally aware women” sure beats “have a happy period” and “stop Mother Nature”.

29 thoughts on “Will Kotex Break the Bank with “Break the Cycle” Campaign?

  1. Like Liz Kissling, I am swimming in ambivalence about the new Kotex “U” product launch.

    Finally? or Too Little, Too Late? Or as Kissling points out, Yesterday’s Sprite, Today’s FemCare?

    I am just not sure.

    I can join in the joke of the industry poking fun at itself and I will, thank you very much And I love the message of NO MORE SHAME. There’s something very refreshing and right on about this campaign, but I feel uneasy about it.

    Are our legitimate critiques and frustrations simply being wrapped in bright paper and sold back to us?

    Maybe I resent FemCare for asserting the authority to 1) exploit shame to sell product for nearly a century and then 2) exploit THEIR overdue pronouncement–and I quote ” enough with the euphemisms, and get over it” –to sell product. We, the consumers, HAVE been over it.

    Where have “U” been, Kotex?

    Eager to hear what other re:Cycling readers have to say. Weigh in!

  2. I’m the Community Leader for U by Kotex. I’m the one responsible for all of that hello facebook and hi there twittering. Heh. I like that.

    I thought your statement was really interesting, Chris: “Maybe I resent FemCare for asserting the authority to 1) exploit shame to sell product for nearly a century and then 2) exploit THEIR overdue pronouncement–and I quote ” enough with the euphemisms, and get over it” –to sell product. We, the consumers, HAVE been over it. Where have “U” been, Kotex?”

    You’re completely right. I wish we had done this forever ago. As a woman, I’m as sick of fields of daisies and calling my vagina a bajingo as anyone. We’re really sorry for all of the past trespasses of our industry, and we’re going to do our best to right the wrongs.

    Thanks for writing about us. –Jordan

  3. It’s a double edged sword. This new campaign is all about, in my opinion, keeping market share. What’s the biggest threat to FemCare product lines? Menstrual suppression. Why do women choose menstrual suppression? For many of the reasons noted in Liz’s piece that boil down to feeling bad, uncomfortable, embarrassed by menstruation. Research indicates that it is women who feel negatively about their bodies and their periods who are more likely to choose cycle-stopping contraceptives and not,as one might think, women who experience the most problems with their menstrual cycles.

    So on some level, I appreciate that Kotex is trying to keep its market share because as long as they have market share it means the menstrual suppressionists are not winning their fight to do away with menstruation completely. And of all the campaign themes they might have chosen, promoting comfort with our bodies and our periods, and vaginal health and awareness, is maybe the best we can hope for. At least until we get them onside educating girls and women about body literacy and the many health benefits of ovulatory menstruation. Healthy breasts and heart, stong bones and muscles, vibrant libido -now there are a few good reasons to be “fierce” about our menstrual cycles.

  4. Thanks for all the comments so far!

    Chris, I agree whole-heartedly with your statement,

    “Maybe I resent FemCare for asserting the authority to 1) exploit shame to sell product for nearly a century and then 2) exploit THEIR overdue pronouncement–and I quote ”enough with the euphemisms, and get over it” –to sell product. We, the consumers, HAVE been over it.

    Where have “U” been, Kotex?”

    This really sums up the itchy feeling I get from this campaign. One the one hand, YAY! vaginal awareness. On the other hand, it stings to be blamed by such a shaming industry for feeling SHAME. (Hmm. Where have I heard this kind of talk before?)

    Jordan, thank you for chiming in. I’m eager to see how this campaign gets taken up in the marketplace, and especially to watch the development of the Declaration of Real Talk and corresponding donations to Girls for A Change.

  5. It’s manipulation, plain and simple. They (Kotex, and the rest) are trying to sell us an overpriced, over-packaged, allergen containing and planet destroying product that we never needed in the first place.
    Once you realize that all advertising is lies their motivation is pretty clear. My mother used to say, and I say it to my kid now “If you see it advertised on television you DON’T need it”.

  6. Interesting tidbit from the blog The Sexist

    “The New York Times reports that the above ad — in which a young actress mocks traditional tampon ads for their condescending, euphemistic tone—originally referenced the “vagina.” When three networks rejected the spot, Kotex subbed in the euphemism “down there” for “vagina,” and only two of the three networks rejected it. Now, the commercial contains no direct references to female genitalia—you know, the place where the fucking tampon goes.”


  7. Yeah, I saw the New York Times piece after I had already written this. Sadly, I can’t say I’m surprised. As I pointed out when I wrote about J-Lo Hewitt’s “vajazzling”, the term va-jay-jay entered the pop culture lexicon via Grey’s Anatomy because network censors thought Shonda Rhimes and company had used the word vagina too many times in that episode. They had shown no such consternation when previous episode use the word penis 17 times.

  8. Is there any way to get the the source(s) to the statistics referenced above? I don’t need access to them, I just want to know the name/citation of the study they came from. Thanks!

  9. So…the eternal question – are they reading my zine and coming to our live shows? Or have we been tapping into the zeitgeist for the past five years? I’ll weigh in properly later, and their ad copy isn’t quite as vitriolic as our sketch ads (although we don’t have to tone it down for the FCC) but damn.

  10. Thanks for chiminmg in, Jordan. What’s a commuity leader, may I ask? So why didn’t Kotex do this years ago? I don’t suppose you not at liberty to share, but I suspect, as Laura does above, that the threat of increasing access to menstrual suppression as a “lifesytle” choice is motivating FemCare makers. Me cynical? Yes.

  11. I have to say, i like it. Despite the lack of a truly new product, kotex is re-inventing itself with a “fresh” (in a good way) welcome new attitude that will probably be a catalyst for other change in the way we talk about femcare. What I’d love to see is for that new attitude to ooze into the product development side and affect the manufacturing processes of femcare products as well. Both Kimberly Clark and Proctor &Gamble emphasize their awards and efforts for energy-wise manufacturing and interest in sustainable practices. Let’s see if the new attitude and honesty will have a more far-reaching effect.
    Meanwhile, I’m loving the ad campaigns, the website and the philanthropic goals to affect social change. Girlology is all about starting conversations that matter with girls and their families. Kotex is definitely starting a conversation we like!

  12. So much for straight talk about menstruation. Actually, I’d rather have no reference at all then to have to replace “vagina” with the euphemism “down there”. In my opinion “down there” is actually a dysphemism – an offensive word or phrase to replace something more neutral.

  13. Our cynicism appears to be well justified. Check out CoverGirl’s brand-spankin’-new ad campaign, “Stand Up For Beauty”. Just like with Kotex U, you can Sign the Declaration, only instead of ‘breaking the cycle’, you’re signing up to stand up for beauty, and “Take Beautiful Back”. And at the website, you’ll find FAQs, live chat, coupons, and all that other stuff the kids love.

    “Take Beautiful Back”. Aren’t you sick of all the ugly girls getting a free reign?


    Thanks to the awesome Beauty Schooled for pointing me to this campaign.

  14. Some thoughts:

    Re: “Black boxes and neon wrappers signify the bold stand that U by Kotex is taking to turn current category conventions upside down.”

    Or maybe, want them to look like “glow sticks,” so when taken out of purse, tampon might be mistaken for party-licious glow stick – see ad with black background and neon glow sticks:


    Re: “U by Kotex empowers women and young girls to challenge euphemisms that hide the truth.”

    I think what’s happening is that the word “vagina” is the new sexy-licious euphemism for “menstruation” – I laugh, remembering that SMCR presentation, where the Tampax-funded researcher explained the vagina is not a tube, but kind of flat (or however she put it, it was a while ago). So does vaginal health mean the health of the mucosal lining of the vagina…+ cervical os + endometrial lining (you know, that unsexy place menstrual flow comes from) + uterus (another unsexy word) + ovaries + vulva…or just the physical area of the vagina itself.

    Well, I really hate to use all these technical terms…but if “vagina” ala Ensler means female genitalia in total, it’s a misnomer…so, now that doesn’t matter anymore??? This doesn’t seem like a step forward, it seems like a step backward…paradoxically, the anatomical term “vagina” can serve double-duty, as both feminist rallying cry and corporate-friendly euphemism for menstruation. So is it quite the feminist rallying cry it is purported to be?

    Also, I find it personally fascinating how U by Kotex is V-Day Lite – I bring up once again, the old hoary chestnut, how Elaine Plummer (Tampax rep) (Tampax/V-Day Sponsor) said of Menstrual Monday: “Frankly, it’s too much about menstruation. It’s larger than that. It’s about women’s health, it’s about lifestyle, for instance, we sponsor a women’s biking team.”

    I can just hear Kotex/Kimberly-Clark rejecting sponsorship of Menstrual Monday for exactly the same reasons, using exactly the same words: “Frankly, it’s too much about menstruation…” I’d love to have Kotex prove me wrong, just email me with an offer of funding at info@moltx.org!

  15. My job as community leader is to help spread the word about our mission (better vaginal care and awareness), but also to be an advocate for the people impacted and involved in the campaign. I make sure that submitted questions get answered, tweets get replied, and that we’re actually listening to the people we’re trying to reach.

    I’m not sure what “increasing access to menstrual suppression” means? Is that referring to using birth control to stop having periods? Because, as a brand, U by Kotex doesn’t have an opinion. But, personally, I think having a period is natural and cleansing, and I wouldn’t want to stop it. But that’s only a personal choice, and I’m not going to criticize other women for their personal choices. I can promise you that it has nothing to do with selling products.

    As for why Kotex didn’t do this years ago, I can’t tell you. I’m a newer addition 🙂
    But I can tell you, the ladies on this team (and, actually, a lot of very cool men) are doing our darndest to fix the monster our industry has created.

  16. Thanks for the link, Elizabeth! (And your comment over at Beauty Schooled.) Even though I slammed CoverGirl today (and have struggled with the Dove Real Beauty campaign in the past: http://beautyschooledproject.com/2009/11/02/glossed-over-doves-real-beauty-campaign/) and I agree with your assessment on Kotex U (arghhh) —— I will play devil’s advocate for just a second and say: I’d rather these companies take this approach than what we’ve gotten in the past. Tampon and mascara manufacturers aren’t going anywhere, so we might as well focus on how to get more body-positive, socially responsible messaging out of them.

    That being said, I think both these campaigns miss the mark because they’re still so transparently about selling more products. And I like a little more breathing room between my public awareness campaigns and my shopping cart.

  17. Thanks, Virginia. Yes, you’re absolutely right that these ads are a big improvement from most previous ads. Your last two lines are very well stated. The thing about advertising pads and tampons is how misplaced the focus is, and has been. We don’t need twirly white dresses or walks on the beach, but black boxes and neon wrappers are the same song, different verse. Women will buy menstrual products. But the ads might be more compelling if they emphasized the absorbency of the product instead of how slick the container is. Just spare us the blue fluid. (We’ve written a great deal about femcare advertising at re:Cycling – click the term in the tag cloud above-right if you want to read more.)

    And hey there, GK Menstrual Monday! Fascinating point about the use of the term ‘vagina’ post-Ensler. I think you’re onto something: recall the recent media kerfuffle when Robert Pattinson said during a photo shoot, “I’m allergic to vagina. I just don’t like vaginas.” Or during the 2008 elections, when Hillary Clinton and her supporters were referred to as vagina-Americans.

  18. Might I add that when I heard that Kotex was bringing a new, radical product to market, I assumed it would be a menstrual cup. What’s new about painting a tampon applicator? Still plastic. Still disposable. Shows how naive I am. Kotex selling menstrual cups… that would be the day!

  19. I agree, it’s better than what we’ve had in the past. And here’s another way to look at it: One could assert that these ad campaigns are only reflecting changes in opinion amongst women about things like beauty, menstruation, etc. That in fact the advertisers are not leading, but following. If this is the case, campaigns like this should be seen as evidence of social change. And perhaps their involvement can help spread and speed up such social change, despite their vested interest to sell product.

  20. Thanks, Jordan.

    Yes, I was referring to using oral contraceptives to stop menstruation altogether (even the monthly withdrawal bleed that comes with conventional pill use (specifically products like Lybrel and Seasonique). I wasn’t looking for an opinion from Kotex, but wondering if this trend of women not menstruating at all (though breakthrough bleeding is a reality in many cases) motivated Kotex to change their marketing stategy…and with all due respect, I am quite sure that most of what ANY brand does is about selling products.

    I am glad that Kotex has hired you to respond to questions and comments. I appreciate the personalizing touch. Thanks for being a part of this dialogue! I may be cycnical but I am committed to keeping the communication and the learning going.

  21. Re: vagina-Americans – Vagimericans? I’m waiting for the condom ad that refers to Penisamericans, and tells viewers they can be purchased in the “penile care” aisle of your local drugstore.

    Myself, I have big-time vagina fatigue. It’s like the phrase “how’s that working for you?” When I heard Rachel Maddow use it on her show, it just sounded tired. Or way back when, the word “embedded,” in reference to journalists traveling with US troops in Iraq. Some words are like scabs – what are they covering up? I guess it’s the writer in me, that wants to keep picking at it…

    Re: “The U by Kotex Click tampons start compact, but expand to full-size with just one click. The click lets women know the tampon is ready to use.”

    After Chris Bobel emailed me back yesterday, about popularity of glow sticks / raves, I remembered that glow sticks have to be “activated,” in order to mix the chemicals inside – you snap the glow stick, and you hear a pop – voila! phosphorescence – with the Click tampon, it’s a click indicating activation, not a pop…too funny. Seems like something women would “age out of” pretty quickly though…but maybe that’s the point, “this is not your mother’s tampon…”

  22. Definitely an age-specific campaign; the target market for UKotex is ages 14-21.

  23. Jordan, Have you seen this former post on re: Cycling about the way in which femcare products are and have been advertised? http://menstruationresearch.org/2010/01/07/the-queen-mother-of-awkward-ad-briefs-marketing-feminine-hygiene-products/ We had quite the discussion with a male ad guy/radio producer about the approaches taken in the past and what could be done differently. Your comments here indicate quite a different take on the issue, including your group’s willingness to take on some of the responsibility for what’s been done in the past and what should change in the present and future.

  24. @Melissa: “Kotex is definitely starting a conversation we like!”

    Yeah, but they’re not starting the conversation. We all did, yonks ago. They’re clearly playing catch-up because they realised they were getting left behind.

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