How do you sell someone something intimate and private? If you’re a loo roll brand, you hire some puppies. If you’re a shower gel for women, you use feel-good-in-your-skin body positivity. If you’re a period product? Well, things start to get a little confusing.
Take the recent Thinx window display at Selfridges. A bright red balloon is squashed between blocks of concrete in the luxury department store’s window. To date, the period pants startup has amassed over £1.17 million in funding. Their £30 knickers found fame thanks to their controversial (read: they actually referenced menstruation) New York subway ads.
This counts as progress in an advertising sector that was once dominated by sanitary pads stained with unidentifiable blue liquid that resembled gloopy WKD. But a luxury department store putting period pants in its window? Since when was menstruation as desirable as a Louis Vuitton handbag?
Few brands have ever really got periods right. It’s not just because of the reluctance to show blood, although it wasn’t until 2017 that the first sanitary product was advertised with red liquid in Bodyform’s #bloodnormalcampaign. People still find menstruation hard to talk about – ‘Auntie Flo’, ‘the curse’, ‘the builders are in’, ‘that time of the month’ – the euphemisms could fill a bloody dictionary.
Extracts from the archive of menstrual marketing range from clinically functional to the downright bizarre. There’s this gloriously camp ‘period drama’ offering from Mooncup, which brings the dizzying heights of Poldarkian theatre to the world of menstruation, period subscription box Hello Flo’s comedy sketches , and this 80s-era John Hughes-esque angsty teen advert. But now the brands are going head on. “Whether we like it or not, periods are still a taboo subject not spoken about as freely in certain markets,” says Siobhan Lonergan, Chief Brand Officer at Thinx.
Anna Coscia is a planning director at London-based agency Quiet Storm. She worked on the Always Like a Girl campaign in 2014, in which young girls talk about what it meant to do things “like a girl”. With a studio casting set up and a modern, zeitgeisty concept, it was a far cry from the functional adverts that preceded it. “We don’t actually talk about periods in it, it was much more emotional,” Anna explains.
Brands like Thinx are trying to shake up the limited range of period products on offer – their pants can hold up to two tampons worth of blood, they’re environmentally friendly, and they embrace, rather than try to hide, the fact that someone is on their period. And they do seem to want to genuinely make change. But how much change you can you make in an luxury department store window display whose biggest audience is tourists and wannabe fashion bloggers?
“My belief is that a brand should also try and do something good,” Anna continues. “If you’re talking to a certain audience and you know there is something that affects them, then you should try and make it better for them. Yes, emotional advertising is going to help sell a product. But we’re not charities right?”
This need to make a splash with their advertising isn’t simply altruistic; it’s a financial necessity. The menstrual market has been flooded with new products in the last few years and competition is rife. Most of the major players now have period trackers, alongside the likes of Clue and Natural Cycles. Then there’s the hundreds of Mooncups available, the reusable pads and the period subscription boxes. There’s even ovulation jewellery.
“It’s fair for brands to try and change culture because they have the stage and the budget,” argues Anna. “It’s fashionable now. And with sanitary items – they have so little to say about their products that they almost have to do something worthy and proactive.”
Even TSB have got in on the act: last month the British bank released a video supporting period poverty charity NE Flow. It’s easy to be cynical about a financial company supporting such a current topic – how much of this is all talk? Does advertising and highlighting issues in the media actually change anything?
Laura Croyton is the founder and campaigner behind the tampon tax petition. Her answer to the question above is an emphatic ‘yes’: “Having innovation in this area is important – advertising new products is challenging in and of itself.”
There’s something a bit perverse about relying on the people selling you stuff to dictate what’s ok and what isn’t. But Croyton is optimistic and believes that change is happening elsewhere too. “I think another really cool and effective way of dealing with the stigma is to politicise the issue. So many girls I’ve met in schools want to get into politics and activism. Making periods a political subject empowers girls to talk about it more.”
It’s not the absence of periods from department store windows or blood from advertising that causes sufering – there’s a whole world of real-life problems out there. According to Plan International UK, one in ten girls can’t afford to buy menstrual products and over 137,700 have missed school because of it. Another survey of 1,000 girls found that over half were embarrassed to talk about their period – and afraid to ask for help because of the stigma attached to it. And, of course, that's before you even get into the fact that young non-binary people and trans boys can get periods, too.
This is where taboos create real problems, and it continues into the workplace. Lack of understanding of what happens when someone is on their period is something that PMDD sufferer Emily Fazah has tackled on her Instagram @moodygirloffical since early last year. “When I was growing up there was virtually no education on mood shifts relating to hormones,” Emily says. “We need to educate children from as young as primary school age and open the dialogue surrounding menstruation as early as possible to normalise these topics.”
Let’s hope the days of walking to the loo with a tampon shoved up your sleeve, or living off a cocktail of codeine and paracetamol for three days straight without feeling able to tell your colleagues, will soon be gone. But for that to happen we need to start looking at where the real problems are – and it’s not in a luxury department store window.