In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by Elizabeth Kissling originally appeared September 29, 2009.
Apropos of Chris’ most recent post, the video of Serena Williams’ new ad for Tampax just popped up in my RSS feed. You can check it out at right.
I’m so torn on this. I’m pretty certain that this is the First. Time. Ever. that the word “blood” has been used in an ad for menstrual products. Do you know what a huge step forward for body acceptance and menstrual literacy that is? When I was growing up in the 1970s, pads were advertised by showing how well they absorbed BLUE fluid. (So were diapers, by the way.) Kotex was the first company to use the color red and the word “period” in ad campaign less than ten years ago. So there is a part of me that is delighted when Catherine Lloyd Burns, playing Mother Nature, smiles slyly and says, “Well, there is plenty of blood, but none of it’s bad”.
But the core message and most troubling element of this entire “Mother Nature” campaign is the idea that menstruation is the gift nobody wants. Can’t P&G (and Kotex, and every other femcare advertiser) just promote the damn products without promoting shame and body hatred? Women will buy menstrual products without being told that periods should make them feel “not so fresh”. In fact, the ads might be more compelling if they emphasized the absorbency of the product and treated menstruation as a fact of life, rather than a secret disaster. Just spare us the blue fluid, please.
But before you applaud the efforts of Always to raise girls’ self-esteem, remember that they’re also the people who bring you these ads. Because that stench of girl never goes away, and you can’t spend all day in the shower, use Always.
It’s Throwback Thursday on social media, and we’re joining in with this ad for Pursettes tampons that ran in Cosmpolitan (U.S.) magazine in 1966. Nearly 50 years on, little has changed in femcare marketing: Look at the familiar themes of medicalization of menstruation, secrecy, fearmongering, and the dreaded scourge of odor problems.
Bayer has gone about settling the 13,000 lawsuits in the US out of court, likely with the hope of keeping the details of confidential files regarding marketing techniques and research out of the public eye. Unperturbed by mounting reports from women of the myriad health issues caused by their products, the company launched Yaz Flex in Australia at the end of 2012. The first oral contraceptive on the Australian market presented as being for the purpose of preventing periods, Yaz Flex comes in a digital dispenser that records how many pills have been taken and alerts the user when she’s missed a dose. There are enough tablets to allow for just three breaks a year. In the US in April the FDA, equally unperturbed, ruled that pharmaceutical company Activis can start selling generic versions of Yaz, providing a low-cost version of what has been the most expensive oral contraceptive of recent years.
The feature in Marie Claire Australia generated 300+ comments on the magazine and television show’s Facebook pages. Many of the commenters were women who had developed blood clots when taking these brands. Some had made the connection at the time and others made the link only as a result of the coverage after months or years of not knowing why they had endured the injuries. Some of the women were presently experiencing the symptoms of a blood clot mentioned in the show and made the decision to stop taking the pill as they typed.
The piece was written by a long-time member of the Yaz and Yasmin Survivors forum and balances interviews with women who suffered the serious physical side effects with those who have been victim to the serious psychological side effects. I’m among those who experienced a long list of negative physical and psychological effects when taking Yasmin for more than two years and it was this forum that prompted me to stop taking it.
Monash University in Australia is one of the few facilities to have undertaken research into the correlation between birth control pills and depression. Professor Jayashri Kulkarni found that women on the pill were twice as likely to experience depression, anxiety, and mental numbness (known as anhedonia). The Yale Daily News reports that in the wake of her research receiving a little media attention Dr Kulkarni received more than 300 emails from women “clearly describing when they went off the pill that they felt subjectively more happy. The anhedonia, for example, disappeared, the irritability disappeared, the sense of poor self esteem disappeared”.
She is now focusing her attention on researching what she believes to be the particular psychological impact of the Yaz brands, those pills containing the synthetic progesterone drospirenone and low-dose synthetic estrogen.
Although there is no direct-to-consumer advertising in Australia these brands of pill gained popularity there just as they did in Europe and Canada. It is interesting to note that Marie Claire US ran an article in 2011 titled ‘The New Super Pill’ that named Yaz and Yasmin as the latest, greatest “no-acne, no-bloat and pms-be-gone” pills that also allow you to “shorten your period”. The pages of magazines such as Marie Claire in the US are usually scattered with adverts for Yaz and Yasmin, the NuvaRing, Nexplanon impant, and Mirena IUD. The print and television commercials often play on the same insecurities reflected and bolstered by the majority of the women’s magazine articles.
Articles with headlines like that of the Marie Claire Australia piece, “Bitter Pills: The Birth Control With Deadly Side Effects”, are usually accused of scare-mongering women off the pill unnecessarily despite the fact that reactions suggest they might well be saving lives. Generally women who decide they don’t want to take one brand are presented with another — and how many women know Yaz Flex, Yaz, Yasmin and Beyaz are 99% similar in composition and won’t just be shifted among the four? Judging from the comments responding to the piece, women who decide they are done with birth control pills are likely to be offered a Mirena IUD, implant, or Depo shot, all of which hold their own set of deadly and life-shattering side effects.
Women commented on the Facebook pages that they had made an appointment with their doctor only to be told not to worry and keep on taking their pills. Yet more remarked on their anxiety over stopping taking them as the article described the difficulties women experienced after they came off. Among women sharing doubts over whether the implant or shot should be their next choice, one woman asked:
“What other safer alternatives are there to birth control pills then?”
These articles don’t tend to go into the non-hormonal alternatives for contraception and cycle health that could support women in their choice not to take these drugs, and leave those scared of side effects to struggle along feeling trapped between pharmaceuticals and unwanted pregnancy, or on pharmaceuticals and not looking like the models in the magazines. That support needs to be out there and easy to find, or we will continue to see messages like this, sent out into the silence:
“I have been on Yaz for 3 months and just recently got switched to Yaz Flex yesterday so that it’s easier for me to remember takin it on time etc. by my doctor. I told her about what’s been happening in the last month or so, and she just gave me a cream for rashes etc. BUT I am seriously concerned as to if what I am experiencing is normal or not. I may be over reacting, I was put on this pill to regulate and lighten my period and also for my acne, it has helped a lot, but in the last month or so I have been experiencing an extremely itchy face, I have been finding it hard at times to breath and I’m very shortened in breath, it’s starting to scare me a lot. My heartbeat is irregular and I feel extremely light headed. I have been also experiencing horrifying migraines and headaches. I’m only 15 I may just need more understanding to what is happening if it is normal, somehow I feel it’s not please help :,(“
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.
I spoke next to Kate Garrett, my captain on the Sheffield Hallam University slam team.
“Wow – first impression is, yes a bit cheesy as many ads are, but it’s also wicked cool and far more clever than most. I enjoyed that. In the case of women selling femcare, I think that’s a good device and empowering, that side of it isn’t cheesy – I just find most ads cheesy because they’re ads. Also as the Tampon Crew started the rap battle, it’s showing how those companies are quietly bullying us all into using what’s already widely known, and trying to bully other options out of the market by going, ‘ew weird reusable femcare omg go away’. So if anyone wakes up to that, the ad’s done a great service. Mooncup had good rhymes, and great lines ‘we only collect from the menstrual flow’ and ending the ad with ‘no strings attached’ – love both of those, great wordplay (I like ‘flow’ because a rap is someone’s ‘flow’ as is the intended meaning in this context, and obviously strings/tampons – excellent …)!
“Nothing particularly jumped out as a bad rhyme, it scans well and seems to work, however, I’d say they shouldn’t use the phrase ‘it’s making me mental’ just to rhyme with ‘lentils’. There are other words and other rhymes more suitable. In an advert empowering women to make informed choices, which is refreshingly free from the usual sexist stuff, it’s probably better not to use any ablist language either. Then again, the phrase came from Tampon Crew, among several insults, so I guess they could’ve been making a complicated point about tampon companies being bullies by giving them certain language? I’m not sure now. Could’ve been lazy writing, could’ve been super clever subtext.
“Anyway. I also loved that Mooncup were honest about loving the earth in the face of being called tree-hugging hippies and whatever else. The Mooncup Crew clearly don’t care what people think in this rap battle, which is ace. In a rap battle, if the other person can’t insult you, you win! I prefer this ad over other femcare ads. I actually started mentally blocking ads for tampons and sanitary towels years ago, but this ad is totally honest, clever and genuine – it uses words like “menstrual” which I’m not sure I’ve even heard in an ad for tampons!”
Regarding mental/lentils: In real life, the intersectionality of oppression means avoiding the word ‘mental’ to challenge mental health stigmas at the same time as challenging the menstrual ones. Examining all of Tampon’s lines, though, I think Kate may be right about the super clever subtext.
Throughout the rap, here’s what Tampon is says about herself:
She is criminally dismissive of outer space
She has no qualms about repeated name calling and putdowns
She uses the phrase tree hugging hippies, so she stereotypes people
She uses the word mental when describing her own escalating emotional state after considering the implications of reusable femcare gaining in popularirty and stubbing her out once and for all.
This is a clever way of alienating Tampon from the audience, it’s a little bit Brechtian, and works in Mooncup’s favour. Kate’s right: In rap battles, blatantly ignoring a dis and coming back with a better one is in keeping with the genre. But maybe next time they could try to find another rhyme or have Mooncup use counterspeech to call her on it within the ad. After all, most people watch viral videos and move on – there’s not a lot of time for deeper analysis.
To round off all that food for thought, I asked the University of Sheffield’s slam team captain, for balance. He’s a good guy, when we’re not in direct competition on stage. He thought the battle format was essential for allowing a reusables company to challenge the disposable femcare industry. Here’s Jack Mann, captain of Dead Beats Poetry Society:
“Rap as a medium for advertising always seems cheesy, however I didn’t know about Mooncups, and so I followed the link to see what they were. As such, the ‘cheese’ was necessary for awareness and, in such an ephemeral zone as online media, worked exactly to spark intrigue. It’s a parody, soI knows that it isn’t to be taken seriously as a medium, however as a poem in that sense is spot on ! it pits them as equals, as if that’s assumed.”
I point out that the Tampon and the Mooncup don’t have equal time – that after the first round, Mooncup actually has two extra lines per round to make its point and subtly influence the viewer: not only do Tampon’s excuses seem shorter and whinier, but Mooncup grows more articulate as each round continues.
Back to Jack:
“Because [Mooncup] want to usurp the grip of the tampon without seeming like upstarts, the only way to do that is to forget that they aren’t on the same level and then use the language behind the established leader to assert that the tampon is not just (relatively) silly but no longer on the same level. In a live battle she would potentially be scored down for exceeding the time limit, but because of crowd reaction would invariably score higher – same as with slams – if a poet pleases the crowd, the crowd then usually influences the judges who then want to please the crowd also.”
These guys all took my questions seriously, scored the Mooncup rap as if there were weighing in after a battle or judging a slam, and answered my slightly tongue-in-cheek queries about the battle rules honestly. It looked overall, whether they thought the rhymes were cheesy or not, that this worked.
I asked Erica Mitchell Packington, social media tech consultant and Chair of Sheffield Steel Rollergirls why it works.
“I think it’s clever, funny, the rhythms work and its factual as well as being kind of kitch and knowing. I guess if I was properly going critique it, I’d recognise the ‘cat fight in the toilets’ thing, but it comes across more strongly as a rap battle that situates the choice in the place that it’ll be enacted and the Mooncup character role models ignoring insults and using stats to fight back against bullying.
“If people don’t know what a Mooncup is, it might prompt them to look them up. I love the way they deal with the whole hippie aspect of it. It’s ridiculous, but I felt a bit sorry for the tampon woman at the end. But rap battles are battles and someone has to lose, I suppose. Might have been better if the victory was softened by her taking a Mooncup or something, but I doubt that fits with the practice of rap battles!
“From a social media perspective, they have really tried to honour the conventions of the rap battle. In the past, advertisers might have been able to get away with a vague approximation of an art form or subculture, but now it’s much easier for the audience to check. The access to the ‘real’ (or at least the real that is shared) means marketers have to quite finely balance the tone.”
Details in this ad are very well observed, and the tongue-in-cheek nod to rap battle as product showdown, despite the initial cringe-factor, is satisfyingly executed. So? Does the battle complement Mooncup’s game plan?
Harry summed it up well:
“On the whole I like the ad because it gets its message across without insulting women, which is a lot more than you can say for many femcare ads and many rap battles.”
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:
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 fewoutliers – 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).
What it’s doing on another level, though, is sending a shout out to fans. With knowing puns and stereotypical send-ups of early-adopters, the jokes are inclusive and validate consumers’ brand loyalty and lifestyles. The video also provides a toolkit for encouraging others; the ad itself is a blueprint for increasing word of mouth advertising, complete with setting, arguments and strategies. Oh no…is it…
Is it 2CK? Is it 2PFPINAB (two personified femcare products in a bathroom)?
No. This could have mirrored the kind of print ad you saw fifty or sixty years ago: two ‘housewives’ in the kitchen worrying about how to stay ‘dainty’ for their husbands. But here, the viewers are not voyeurs, and this is not an overheard conversation – the camera angles cast us alternatively as the Tampon and the Mooncup.
It’s a very clever mash up of a reclaimed and reconstructed 2CK and a blatant product comparison ad. It’s well acted and directed, and the production values are high. Viewers aren’t patronised. We’re included.
Can advertising be ethical?
If you tell the truth about your product, use inclusive language, back up your stats, place adverts appropriately, and don’t use shame or patronise the intelligence of the viewer? Then… yeah. I mean…if we’re trying to build a better world and all that, I don’t think it’s too much to ask. Advertising may depict an alternative universe, but it shouldn’t be exempt from treating people with respect.
I contacted Kath Clements, who is Mooncup’s Campaigns and Marketing manager and the person who had sent the statistical data over as soon as I requested it. She was happy to answer all the questions I asked. I felt a bit spoilt – like I was monopolising her time. Obviously it’s in her interest if I spend time talking about and telling others about her company, but I really wanted to know about the marketing side, and she was really open about it. It made me think I could approach other femcare companies and see if they’d speak to me as well. Worst they can do is say no, right?
I asked her about the ethics of advertising. (As in, are there any? I mean…this ad seems so ethical! And funny! And not shaming! I’m not used to getting all three in one ad.)
“When I started, my job description was that we don’t do push marketing. My role was getting editorial, facilitating word of mouth and education. It’s evolved. Maybe in order to be seen we need to ‘play the game’ but it still comes from the same place of trying to be conscious of what we do. We don’t want to make women feel bad; we want women to know that they have a choice.”
I also asked for a bit more info about those stats. The data comes predominantly from the AHPMA – the Absorbent Hygiene Products Manufacturing Association, which I didn’t know was a thing. AHPMA seems to regulate industry standards for absorption measures etc. using patented absorption measuring devices that are kind of a hoot.
I feel like this is secret information – like this level of transparency is something I shouldn’t be sharing. But actually, it makes me respect a company that appears to have a business strategy as ethical as its product.
In terms of promotion, I know that when corporations use viral ads, they’re usually not going viral spontaneously – they’re seeded by professionals who get the word out through traditional PR routes and get the hit numbers up. Don’t think flu. Think 12 Monkeys.
So it was back to Kath:
“Our last viral reached 380,000 views without any seeding. As with the Love Your Vagina song, the battle is gaining views naturally through shares by Mooncup users (Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc.) as well as viewers who just like (or don’t like!) the content choosing to share it. As before, as the concept’s groundbreaking, we’re also getting editorial coverage which is growing its reach. Beyond that, for the first time, we’re also using a company called 7th Chamber who are seeding it for us, and supporting its positioning across several sites. We’ll be doing MPUs on some mainstream websites, and putting them against content that’s a bit incongruent to make it stand out.”
I had to ask what MPUs meant – they’re multipurpose units – the square ads on websites. I assumed that kind of thing could break the bank, and asked her how much something like that was worth.
She couldn’t tell me all the figures, but said that seeding wasn’t that expensive when compared to other aspects like the film production and the usage costs (the actors will receive payments that are like set-fee royalties while the ad is online), and that it was all far, far cheaper than a television ad. If the femcare ads on television were produced with this aesthetic, though, we’d have a totally different discourse.
I had to ask her how she and the Mooncup team were able to make ethical choices. Like…what was it about them helped them to keep femcare stereotypes out of their marketing.
“We’re aware that advertising has the power to tap into people’s void and make people want to buy things they don’t need or make people uncomfortable. Our choices about what we commission are informed by the whole team of us, each keeping an eye to the impact that any of our advertising may have on the viewer. We work to make sure that what we create aligns with our ethics both as a business, and as individuals.”
Reusables have entered the ring as a marketable commercial alternative to tampons. A new standard has been set for shame-free advertising and now disposables need to keep up. Definitely period positive.
Stay tuned to the blog next week for Rap Battle analysis!
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:
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 …..you 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.