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Taboo Topics

Advertisers who sell products used for purposes viewed as private or shameful usually must confront a thicket of rules, taboos, censorship, and required euphemisms when constructing their messages. However the messages may pose their appeals, the advertiser risks being seen as either too brazen or too oblique. The result can be unfortunate for consumers: people can be underserved because of shame or misunderstanding—or they purchase products they don’t really need because embarrassment has been unreasonably induced. In this issue, we have four original works that investigate two such situations.

I have had a personal research interest in the first of these, the marketing of sanitary pads. In 2008, a team I led from Oxford conducted a study of the sanitary provisions in rural Africa to determine their effect on girls’ attendance in school. What we found was that girls had too limited access to the means to control their menses and, as a result, were missing four to five days of school every month. Once we provided sanitary pads, they were in school regularly. Now, secondary school education among girls is one of the most crucial goals in the global fight against poverty because educating females has been shown to have a remarkably positive effect in combating phenomena, ranging from infant mortality to disease transmission, that hold the cycle of deprivation in place. Though school retention data consistently show a steep drop-off after the primary grades among girls in the developing world, few had ever stopped to consider whether the cause might be the onset of menstruation. The clear reason for this oversight was the taboo, common to both the developed and developing nations, against discussing menstruation. No one had realized this problem because few, on the ground in Africa or in the halls of Washington, would talk about it. The resulting absence pattern in the schools was truly shameful.

So, it is with particular pride that I am publishing the three articles here on the topic of sanitary pad advertising. The first, “Re-Cycling: Reducing and Reusing Euphemism in Kotex’s Latest Campaign”, was written by a member of the Oxford team on the project I have just described, Caitlin Ryus. A recent graduate of the Columbia University graduate program in public health, Caitlin has here written about the history of sanitary pad advertising in the U.S. as a backdrop for the recent, very successful, Kotex U campaign. As Ms. Ryus correctly points out, this taboo-breaking campaign has achieved an envied goal in today’s marketplace—these ads have “gone viral,” attracting large numbers of viewers online, a rare phenomenon for a “low involvement” product. This explosion of interest results from the advertising’s open challenge to the prudish attitudes, not of the manufacturers, but of network and magazine censors over a seventy-five year period. Silly as the ballerinas and blue liquid may be, they were a response to the misogynistic insistence of those who control the media, not necessarily those who produced the ads.

As I am quite a bit older than the target audience for the Kotex U ads, I can remember the painful embarrassment of having to buy pads in a society where such things really were never talked about. So, my own memory resonated strongly with the second article, “The Imageries of Menstruation in Sanitary Napkin Ads: Representation and the Practice of Discourse as a Marketing Strategy,” by Umme Busra Fateha Sultana, about the situation of sanitary advertising in Bangladesh. In this very populous and traditional country, sanitary pads are used as yet by very few women, usually only those among the prosperous classes. The product is seen as embarrassingly private, but also as modern, one of many innovations that stand to change the relationship of women to the rest of society. The brave young females who will be the future of Bangladesh must make choices about how best to employ scarce resources in the service of freedom. Yet, as in the U.S., the messages about sanitary pads are often oblique, a function of the extreme embarrassment that Bangladeshis feel about the topic, particularly when it is broached in public media. As Busra eloquently interprets the ads from her country, sharing gracefully her own experiences and assessments, we get a peek at the historic moment that her countrywomen face, one that we would not get analyzing more accepted products.

I have been privileged in my own work in Africa to be able to travel with and learn from the team who manages the Always campaign there. Onur Yaprak, the brand manager from this team, has recently completed his doctorate and graciously accepted my invitation to write about Procter & Gamble’s insights and message-building in Africa. When travelling in east Africa last spring, I was amazed by the number of times people we met would sing a little jingle when introduced to the Always team. Local people, male and female, laughed and smiled—and clearly thought the campaign was a positive one. When I finally saw the “Check Check” spots myself, I also smiled. The topic of menstruation is as taboo in Africa as it is anywhere in the world, but Procter & Gamble’s dancing schoolgirls are an artful and upbeat engagement with a sensitive topic. Indeed, in contrast to the stilted euphemisms of 1950s US advertising for sanitary pads, this spot is candid and light-hearted, while being respectful of local sensitivities. The partner to this campaign, about the night use of the pads, brings home the potential embarrassment even a married woman faces during the nights of her period. Dr. Yaprak’s analysis of local conditions unpacks the more common situation, in which the women may sleep not just in a room with their husbands, but with other family members as well. The intimacy of such circumstances should remind readers of the importance of fully comprehending cultural differences in the context of use when evaluating campaigns.

The last article is an excellent history on an uncomfortable topic: the selling of feminine hygiene deodorant to African-American women. Sitting as it does in the crossways of two forms of prejudice—the belief that blacks “smell bad” and the belief that women’s bodies are dirty—the effort to sell this form of deodorant to American black women is now a sad commentary. In “An Odor of Racism: Vaginal Deodorants in African-American Beauty Culture and Advertising,” Michelle Ferranti does a scholarly job of explicating a difficult set of texts. In this instance, we can see that the myths that erupt around topics that can’t be openly discussed are negative for the consumer, but in a different way than in the case of sanitary pads. Here, rather than blocking the way to a product that offers freedom to move about with dignity, the effect is to produce shame that chains the consumer to an unnecessary and potentially damaging practice.

Thus, we can see that the sensitivities of societies to discussions about certain material and bodily practices sometimes act against the true interests of the population. However often we may be told that advertisers should be “culturally sensitive” to local discomfort, we should bear in mind that some taboos are in place to oppress in the first instance—and that bringing the discourse about practices into the open may be the best thing for consumers as well as advertisers. Thus, we come full circle to the complaint of the Kotex U campaign: the oppression and contempt that is implicit in 75 years of constrained speech about a perfectly natural, nearly universal phenomenon.

Linda M. Scott