Decoding Sex in the Media: Tampon Commercial Weirdness

I’ve noticed recently that, of all the hygiene product advertisements—ads for deodorant, toilet paper, diapers, soap, tissues, etc.— menstrual⁠ pad and tampon⁠ commercials are by far the weirdest.

Many involve cheerful women in colorful clothes and tampons that bloom and twirl in mid-air. Many demonstrate the effectiveness⁠ of pads and panty liners by pouring blue liquid —to represent red menstrual fluid, as if red fluid was somehow unavailable that day —onto the product. Many show random men staring at attractive women—these seem to say “You need our product so that men will still enjoy looking at you while you have your period⁠ ."

Freakier still, a Russian tampon brand released an ad in which a woman is eaten by a shark because she decides to swim in the ocean with a leaky tampon. Admittedly, I laughed when I watched this, because I know that it is highly unlikely—maybe even impossible—that menstrual blood would attract a shark, but tampon companies certainly shouldn’t perpetuate these types of period-shaming myths (I have friends who refuse to hike when they’re menstruating because they’re afraid of bear attacks).

Libra, an Australian menstrual product company, released a particularly offensive commercial last year, which is really saying something, given that offensive seems to be the order of the day with this kind of advertising.

In the ad, a presumably trans* woman and a woman we are clearly to presume cisgender⁠ stand side-by-side in front of a bathroom mirror. They begin to compete with one another, tacitly contending over who is more feminine⁠ according to the lowest common deonominator, lookist standard: the cisgender woman applies makeup, then the trans* woman applies makeup; the cisgender woman adjusts her breasts, then the trans* woman adjusts hers. Eventually, the cisgender woman smugly pulls out⁠ a box of tampons, and the trans* woman, who we are to feel feels defeated, walks away in a huff. The words “Libra Gets Girls” then appear on the screen.

This sends a myriad of sexist and transphobic messages. First, and most obviously, it suggests that transgender⁠ women aren’t “real” women, and indicates that cisgender women must compete to maintain their ostensibly superior female status—which not only perpetuates the belief that all women are catty and mean to one another, but enables transphobia⁠ .

It also defines “girls” as people who menstruate, which isn’t even remotely accurate: most women or girls who will menstruate don’t start their periods until their early-to-mid teens, some girls take hormonal contraceptives to skip their periods, and some girls don’t menstruate at all, be they transgender women or other women who don't for any number of reasons, including because they have finished menopause. And what about trans men who haven’t received, or don't want, hormone replacement therapy? They will most likely menstruate, just like most cisgender women will. Tampons are clearly a completely unreliable indicator of femininity.

(Side note: can someone please make a spoof of this commercial in which a trans* man comes up and asks to borrow a tampon from the cisgender woman after the trans* woman leaves?)

It should be noted that, in all of the nine menstrual product ads I’ve cited, the word “period” is used only once.

And the single ad that dares to utter this word — period? It promises to “make it disappear”, as if periods are innately negative and universally unwanted. This kind of messaging encourages people to feel ashamed about menstruating.

So why the heck are tampon ads so weird?

Here is my theory:

The vast majority of these types of advertisements shrewdly circumvent the concept of menstruation⁠ , using terms like “protection”, “leak-proof”, and “fit” without actually naming which fluids may leak or what body part a tampon fits into. But, as we’ve seen from ads like Axe’s “Clean Your Balls” commercial, advertisers clearly do not have the same issues when it comes to discussing male genitalia in graphic detail.

In a 2006 Libra tampon commercial, a man decides that since he has a large penis⁠ , his female partner⁠ must need the largest-sized tampon. In reality, a person’s preferred tampon size is dependent upon the heaviness of their period, not the size of their vagina⁠ — and definitely not the size of their partner’s genitalia. Even a menstrual product company felt more comfortable focusing on penises than vaginas — and, as a result, provided inaccurate information about tampon sizing.

This phenomenon sends the message that while penises and testicles are normal parts of life, vulvas and vaginas—and menstruation, and oh hell, either being a woman at all, having a vagina at all, or both—is somehow shameful and best kept under wraps. I’ve noticed this trend among my peers as well: my friends with vaginas often think they are  “gross," but my friends with penises are typically comfortable with—if not proud of—their penises.*

As part of my sex⁠ education training, I, along with a group of peer educators, was asked to write down all of the slang terms I could think of for the words “penis” and “vagina”. I found that slang for “vagina” typically cutesified the word, making it sound sweet and innocuous—“va-jay-jay”, “pussy”, “cooch”. The slang terms for “penis”, on the other hand, sounded either tough or boastful—“dick”, “schlong”, “member”, even “baby-maker” (as if vaginas don’t play a part in making babies? Please.).

And although we came up with a few negative terms for “vagina”, we couldn’t think of a single negative term for “penis”. No wonder my friends with vaginas feel so uncomfortable with their own anatomy⁠ .

This cultural avoidance, fear and shame of everything vagina-related results in some seriously messed-up tampon commercials. When advertisers feel they can’t be straightforward about the usage of their products, they resort to fluffy, ridiculous images that make periods look like Easter egg hunts, not-so-subtle period put-downs, or “edgy” (read: offensive) humor and other shock-value tactics.

A tampon-delivery company called HelloFlo recently released a refreshing ad in which a young girl declares herself “Camp Gyno” at her summer camp, providing other girls with tampons and casually using words like “vagina” and “menstruation” (as if they’re totally normal!). This commercial earned a lot of praise for being so progressive, but the actual HelloFlo website tells a different story.

The company charges up to $18 per month to send someone what appears to be half of a $7 box of tampons because, as Kat Stoeffel of writes, they “can’t count the 28 days in between periods. Or ask [their] dad to put tampons on the grocery list… Or get used to the idea of strangers in line there knowing [they’re] of child-bearing age.”

The entire idea behind “discreet” tampon deliveries is that people don’t want to bear the burden of purchasing their own menstrual products (at a much lower price). In reality, the actual act of running to the store for tampons can’t be that strenuous for the average menstruating person, so what’s the big deal?

HelloFlo has created a business model based on the assumption that people are somehow uncomfortable buying these products — because women shouldn't be seen with tampons in public. Even the creators of that Camp Gyno ad have bought into the idea that periods are shameful!

There is one company, however, that has been doing a good job at sending positive messages about menstruation for years. Kotex, a menstrual product brand, has released a series of TV commercials addressing both the ridiculousness of many tampon ads and the (entirely unwarranted) shame associated with periods. The company has also started a campaign called “Generation Know”  which is committed to “busting period myths” and educating people with vaginas about their sexual⁠ health. Way to go, Kotex!

In 2010, the company performed a social experiment in which a woman stood outside a drug store with a bicycle and stopped men who were walking by. She then explained that she had forgotten her bike lock, and asked each man to buy tampons for her at the store while she watched over the bike.

The video shows a few hilarious reactions to her request, but the experiment yielded not-so-funny results: as it turns out, 40% of the subjects were uncomfortable purchasing tampons.

But it’s unfortunately unsurprising that such a large chunk of the population is freaked out by the idea of menstruation when advertisers constantly tell us—either directly or through underlying messages—that vaginas and periods are somehow indecent.

In reality, some people love their periods, and that’s okay. Some people hate their periods, and that’s okay too. Some people have mixed feelings about or complete disinterest in their periods, and guess what: it’s all okay. It’s not okay, however, to encourage someone to feel ashamed of their body parts or their functions, no matter how much product you think -- or know -- that shame will sell.