Half the population of the world experience menstruation, so why has it taken society so long to talk about it openly? From the early days of mystery packaging and bans on words like ‘period’ and ‘vagina’ to the representation of period blood as blue, and women dressed in white, we took an interesting, sometimes shocking, journey through the evolution of period product advertising.
There’s no denying that period product advertising has come a long way, but there’s still work to do. As feminism and women’s voices have become louder over the last century, period product advertising has evolved too.
We noticed several distinct phases, each one reflecting the state of feminism at the time.
1920s to 1940s: Selling secrecy
Period product ads at this time were typically cryptic. Often designed to be a guessing game or insider secret, they featured clues to help the audience work out what they were for. Period ‘napkins’ were advertised as medical products and discretion was the order of the day.
The image of a black box with a medical cross on it and the brand name splashed across it was practically all you had to guess that it was an ad for a period product. Period brand Modess even boasted about how ‘the sharpest eye’ couldn’t guess what was in the packaging.
Some ads had copy that talked about the benefits, using words like ‘protection,’ immaculacy’ and ‘deodorisation’ but ‘avoiding embarrassment’ seemed to be the main selling point. These were products that kept women just how they were expected to be: clean, fragrant, and safe and… poised?
Mystery, secrecy and being ‘in the know’ were popular trends. In some adverts, women are depicted in coded conversations with each other about the benefits of using one brand over another. While others sold the idea of secrecy and discretion.
1950s-2000s: Aspiration, freedom, power and white
The 1950s saw the emergence of aspirational period product ads. Women were sold the tantalising idea that they could do anything and be anyone they wanted, keeping their period a closely guarded secret along the way of course.
The ‘Modess…because’ ads of the 50s and 60s spoke to this desire for freedom and self-expression. Modern for their time, these elegant and highly successful ads displayed women in haute couture, suggesting that the product fulfilled women’s desire to look and feel glamourous, and not be held back by their periods.
Words like ‘whisper-soft fabric,’ ‘sheerest luxury’ and ‘perfected protection’ all added to the secretive but aspirational feeling, and we even saw the debut of the all-white outfit. Women were unstoppable, just as long as no-one actually mentioned the word period.
This 1960s era Tampax ad follows a similar theme, tapping into the aspiration for a fun-filled summer and promising that ‘nothing keeps you out of the swim, away from the merriment, or apart from the party’.
Thanks to the success of these early campaigns this aspirational theme continued well into the noughties, with adverts showing all the amazing things women could do while on their period. Want to go swimming, running, or dancing? Not a problem as long as you had tampax… And dressed in white of course.
Tampax even presented itself as the key to Serena Williams’ success by claiming to give her the power and confidence to beat Mother Nature’s ‘monthly gift.’ The word period and images of the actual product were still nowhere to be seen, but we did get a mention of the ‘time of the month.’
The key problem though is that the depiction of a stress-free, white-clothed, clean period experience in these ads just wasn’t realistic. And certainly not reflective of what millions of women were experiencing each month. More needed to be done.
2000s: We finally see the product, but periods are blue
In the 2000s we finally started to see ads showing the actual products. What was previously only suggested by coded conversations or images was now being explicitly talked about. Progress at last.
Freshness took centre stage with illustrative, cartoony images portraying the product as pristine and immaculate. Many of these ads also depicted period blood as a hygienic and sterile blue liquid, perpetuating the idea that period products were sanitary, medical products. Blood shown in horror or action films was ok, period blood still definitely was not. In fact, period product brand Always even talked about how their towels were ‘protection made more beautiful.’
This was an interesting phase in period product advertising. Brands were slowly getting more open about the realities of periods, but old stereotypes clearly persisted.
2016 – present: Periods normalised… nearly
Fast-forward to the last decade and there has been a clear shift in the conversation between brands and consumers. In 2018, we finally saw the first period product ad showing period blood as red, thanks to Bodyform’s groundbreaking #bloodnormal campaign.
We’ve also seen the emergence of a plethora of disruptor brands that openly acknowledge the realities of menstruation, such as painful cramps, mood swings and messy periods.
But the journey certainly hasn’t been smooth. Period pants brand Thinx created a stir showing images of grapefruit signifying vaginas, and women coping with period cramps. The New York City subway considered banning the ad’s suggestive imagery for being inappropriate and showing too much skin.
In 2020 Facebook banned ads from period underwear brand ModiBodi, stating that the period blood shown violated its guidelines – a move it later retracted.
Despite these challenges, many brands continue to push the boundaries of period product advertising. Natracare put pads front and centre by conveying the reality of heavy periods. They teamed up with influencer Jess Megan who shared her experience of the maxipad range on Instagram.
The environmental impact of period products also began to emerge in earnest, with brands such as Lunette and Dame presenting their products as a more sustainable monthly solution.
The latest wave of period product advertising shows that brands are increasingly appreciating their role as agents of positive change. We are seeing the emergence of contemporary brands that recognise different identities and experiences of people who menstruate.
Of course, more can be done to shift the narrative around periods, not least with the use of open, inclusive, and empathetic language. Let’s hope the world of period product advertising stays positive and progressive, because the world needs to see that there’s nothing shameful or taboo about menstruation, period.
Gayatri is the Head of mHealth at Thrive. With a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, she has extensive experience working in global health projects as well as national level programmes such as India’s National AIDS Control Programme.
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