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Shame marketing

June 6, 2024

The evolution of period product advertising

Imagine it's 1870 and you're purchasing your “monthly rags” discreetly from a traveling salesman who goes door to door; that's if you're upper class. If not, you're probably making your own “pads” from whatever scraps of cloth you have around. Some of you might have even used sea sponges. Other than that, period products are not widely marketed yet. But there's this brand-new thing that the women around you are talking about in hushed tones: the “Hoosier Sanitary Belt”. It's being marketed as a more hygienic option for menstruation management.

Around the turn of the century, “The Lady’s Magazine” started making a splash and with it came a rise in advertising. Among the elegant drawings of women in the latest fashions was an ad for “sanitary napkins.” The language was discreet, almost embarrassed, indicating the shameful nature of menstruation as a secret that must be hidden at all costs.

How far have we come since then?

Let me take you on a ride through time. I’ll let you judge for yourself.

  • 1870 ad for the Hoosier Sanitary Belt.
  • 1926 Kotex ad.
  • 1926 Kotex ad from The Bulletin. Newspapers Collection, State Library Victoria.
  • 1928 Modess ad.
  • Tampax ad, 1937.
  • Ad from the Australian Women's Mirror, 1939. Newspapers Collection, State Library Victoria.
  • 1946 Modess ad from The Australian Women's Mirror. Newspapers Collection, State Library Victoria.
  • 1952 Tampax ad.
  • Modess ad from the Australian Women's Weekly in 1959. Newspapers Collection, State Library Victoria.
  • 1960 Tampax ad.
  • 1966 Tampax ad.
  • 1967 Meds ad.
  • 1968 Tampax ad.
  • 1969 Femicin ad.
  • 1969 Pristeen ad.
  • 1970 Tampax ad.
  • 1970 Stayfree ad.
  • 1971 ad.
  • 1971 Vespre ad.
  • 1971 Carefree ad.
  • 1971 Modess ad.
  • 1972 Tassaway ad.
  • 1974 Pursettes ad.
  • 1975 Stayfree ad from the Australian Women's Weekly. Photograph by Dr Jane Connory.
  • 1978 Tampax ad.
  • 1978 Tampax ad.
  • 1981 Stayfree ad.
  • Double-page spread from a 1983 edition of the Australian Women's Weekly, sexualizing a prepubescent girl to sell tampons. Photograph by Dr Jane Connory.
  • 1983 Midol ad.
  • 1989 Carefree ad.
  • 1990 Tampax ad.
  • 2011 Tampax ad.
  • Ad from Girlfriend Magazine, 2020. Photograph by Dr Jane Connory.

The early 20th century: silence and stigma

In the early days, period product advertising was shrouded in euphemism and discretion. Consider the 1920s ad for Kotex, one of the first commercial sanitary napkins. The ad featured sophisticated women and vague phrases like “a wonderful aid to women,” avoiding any direct mention of menstruation. This era's ads operated under the assumption that periods were a private matter, something to be managed quietly and discreetly.

The psychology behind these ads is clear: menstruation was taboo. Women were expected to maintain an aura of cleanliness and purity, and anything that hinted at their natural bodily functions was considered unseemly. This societal pressure reinforced the notion that women's bodies were something to be controlled and hidden, feeding into the larger narrative of patriarchal control over female biology.

The mid-20th century: cleanliness and gaslighting

As we moved into the 1950s and 1960s, the tone of period product advertising shifted slightly but remained rooted in the concept of cleanliness. Ads for products like Modess sanitary napkins featured glamorous women in evening gowns, suggesting that using these products would help maintain a spotless, odor-free existence. The underlying message was still: periods were dirty, and it was a woman's responsibility to mask this “dirtiness” to conform to societal expectations.

This era also saw the rise of gaslighting tactics in advertising. Consider the infamous 1970s Rely tampon ad campaign, which boldly claimed that their tampons were so absorbent, women could forget they were even on their period. This not only downplayed the realities of menstruation but also suggested that a woman's natural state should be one of constant concealment and denial of her bodily functions.

The late 20th century: feminist waves and new narratives

The 1980s and 1990s brought significant changes, influenced by the rising tide of second-wave feminism. Advertisements began to feature more straightforward language, acknowledging that menstruation was a normal part of life. However, the emphasis on cleanliness and discretion persisted. Take the “Have a happy period” campaign by Always in the 1990s. While more open about menstruation, it still perpetuated the idea that a period should be managed in a way that it doesn't inconvenience anyone.

Despite these changes, the racial and gendered dimensions of period product advertising were largely ignored. Most ads featured cisgender, white women, neglecting the diverse experiences of women of color, trans men, and nonbinary individuals. This lack of representation reinforced a narrow, exclusionary narrative about who menstruates and how they should feel about it.

The 21st century: inclusivity and empowerment

In the 21st century, we are witnessing a revolution in period product advertising, driven by intersectional feminism and a broader understanding of gender. Campaigns like Thinx's “For People with Periods” have shifted the narrative to include trans and nonbinary individuals, emphasizing that menstruation is not limited to cisgender women. This inclusivity is crucial in dismantling the stigma around periods and recognizing the diverse experiences of all menstruators.

Modern ads also embrace a more empowering tone. Brands like Always with their “Like a Girl” campaign and Bodyform's “#BloodNormal” initiative have boldly confronted period stigma, encouraging people to talk openly about menstruation. These campaigns use realistic portrayals of blood instead of the misleading blue liquid and feature diverse bodies and stories, reflecting a broader, more inclusive understanding of menstruation.

The psychological impact of these changes is profound. By normalizing menstruation and representing diverse experiences, these ads empower individuals to feel pride rather than shame about their bodies. This shift helps dismantle the patriarchal and racist structures that have long controlled the narrative around menstruation, promoting body autonomy and self-acceptance.

The work ahead: towards true inclusion and justice

While we've made significant strides, there's still much work to be done. Period poverty remains a critical issue, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities. Brands and activists must continue to push for accessible, affordable period products for all, while advocating for policy changes that address the root causes of period poverty.

Furthermore, we must ensure that the conversation around menstruation includes all voices. This means amplifying the experiences of women of color, trans men, nonbinary people, and those with disabilities. We can build a truly inclusive movement that challenges the capitalist, white supremacy patriarchy power-over systems by celebrating menstruation as a pause from the hustle and grind and by honoring the cycle phases as energetic pacemakers for a more holistic and natural rhythm of existence.

Sources & Credits

Vintage Period Product Ads — The Cova Project

Dr. Jane Connory, Looking at 100 ads for menstrual products spanning 100 years - shame and secrecy prevailed

Flashbak, 25 Vintage Feminine Hygiene Ads That Offered Freedom

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