Entire books have been written about the portrayal of women in popular media and advertising. A few years ago, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty won kudos for tackling this problem head-on. Kotex, a North American brand of products for menstrual periods, has recently launched an equally powerful campaign to help girls, women and society at large become more comfortable talking about women’s bodies, menstrual cycles and women’s reproductive health. The Break the Cycle campaign breaks taboos and, in so doing, Kotex has integrated social responsibility into the creation of a new product line. It’s a brilliant marketing move and one that has the potential to effect real change.
These aren’t your mother’s tampons
You can’t miss the visual difference between the UbyKotex products and their predecessors. Whereas feminine protection products have always been packaged in discreet pastel boxes with flowers and other clichéd symbols of nonthreatening femininity, the new Kotex line is in your face; the dominant colors are black and neon tones of blue, orange, green, etc.
The brand then tackles the advertising conventions head-on, parodying the standard elements of tampon and sanitary napkin commercials.
A real cause behind the cuteness
But the campaign goes much further than just making fun of outdated portrayals of women’s periods. In a series of funny, but disturbing, ads it highlights some of the following facts:
- 72% of women feel society is more confortable talking about penises than vaginas. When presented with suggestive inkblots, many more people named the male sexual organs, often using the blunt, anatomical term “penis”, whereas corresponding feminine ink blots mostly triggered evasive answers: “I don’t know”, “a heart”, “a woman”, “an insect”, “a hole”…
- 40% of people are uncomfortable buying tampons. A girl in New York City who has forgotten her bike lock, stops men on the street and asks them to run into the pharmacy and buy her some tampons while she stays with her bike. They go to amazing lengths to avoid helping her.
- 62% of people are confused when buying period products. A young man purportedly buying feminine protection for his girfriend asks strangers for help and gets some wacky advice. My favorite moment is when he asks an older woman why his girlfriend would have specified not to buy any with cardboard. Him: “Why would you even make this out of cardboard?” Her: “Well, it’s a man’s world. Men make things that are stupid.”
The ads are amusing, but they are also disturbing. Young girls are coming of age in a society where they have trouble getting straight answers about their bodies and where the implicit message is that anything having to do with their menstrual cycle and reproductive organs is shameful and unnatural. The implications are sinister as highlighted on the campaign’s website:
- 60% of the women surveyed feel that they have to keep vaginal health issues to themselves
- Most girls put more thought into taking care of their teeth than their vaginal health
- Most of the survey respondents would turn to the internet for vaginal health advice before talking to a friend or their mothers.
- 3/4 of the girls surveyed equate “vaginal health” with infections.
- And perhaps most frighteningly, 64% wish they could talk to their doctors about vaginal health (emphasis mine).
Correcting the misconceptions and information gaps
Through videos and an online Q&A section, the campaign helps girls get the information that they have been lacking. Every question is answered by three people: an adolescent girl, a mother and an “expert” (a female doctor). There is also a video that demonstrates how to insert a tampon, which is a big mystery for girls just starting their periods. I have to admit that this video feels terribly daring, which says a lot about the weight of these social taboos, even though I think I am fairly comfortable with these issues after dealing with them for a quarter-century.
There’s a call to action too
The campaign doesn’t just pay lip service to these issues, it also helps empower women and girls to “take back the dialogue”.
- Women can sign a declaration about celebrating their bodies and challenging society to think differently.
- They can submit spoofs of traditional ads for period products.
- They can peruse a gallery of “traditional” ads and indicate the ones that do the worst job talking to women about their periods.
- They can submit their own testimonials in writing or by video, sometimes as simple as just saying the word “vagina” without shame (there’s a lot of giggling).
- Tips on how to conducting simple social experiments are given, and, if filmed, the results can be submitted to the campaign.
- They can take a poll.
- Of course, they can ask for free samples…there is a product behind the campaign.
Good conception, excellent execution
Overall, the campaign is solidly constructed from beginning to end and addresses an important social issue. Families, schools, clubs and other institutions will find this to be a very helpful resource for talking to girls in a straightforward manner, and it provides a safe, anonymous place for teenagers of both sexes to learn more about periods and women’s health.
This is a fabulous example of a company integrating social responsibility and its core business. From a marketing perspective, it’s an intelligent way to reach out toyoung women who are just starting their periods, with the intent of creating loyal and committed consumers who will stick with the product until menopause. It will be interesting to see how social attitudes evolve, and I hope that Kotex continues to track this element of the campaign’s success and does not only measure the commercial success.
PS. Writing this post felt important. I think it’s my way of contributing to the goal of eliminating the societal taboo once and for all.