Advertising is everywhere. Whether we are flicking through a magazine at the doctor’s office, daydreaming out the bus window on our way to work, learning from our favourite YouTubers, scrolling through social media, or curling up on the couch to binge watch our favourite TV shows, we’re likely to see numerous ads daily, with some experts estimating that we could be exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 ads a day(!).
With that much exposure, it’s natural that advertising will have an effect on us, whether we are aware of it or not. What’s more, whilst advertising can reflect society’s values, it can also have the effect of ‘normalising’ values or behaviours. That means that the ads we see can cause us to shift our views around our own values and behaviours – for the better or the worse.
So how have ads for period products over the past 100 years affected the way we view menstruation?
Dr Jane Connory, a lecturer in Communication Design at Swinburne University of Technology, used the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns to explore the digital database of women’s magazines at Melbourne Victoria State library. Her findings were illuminating, and can tell us a lot about the messages cis women (unsurprisingly, non-binary and transgender people were not featured in any period product advertising until very recently) were getting about periods, as well as the messages cis women were getting about themselves. Whilst Dr Connory’s research explored Australian women’s magazines, we can assume that, being such close neighbours, many of Dr Connory’s findings apply to us here in Aotearoa, too.
Interestingly (although not necessarily surprisingly), early ads for menstrual pads treated menstruation like an illness. From the 1920s to the 1940s, it is suggested that period products were only available to women who could afford them (it seems period poverty has always existed), with pharmacies selling products called “protective necessities” and “surgical appliances”. Nurses were on hand to assist with period product purchases, and product packaging used medical symbols such as a hospital cross. One brand was even called “Meds” – implying that the pads were a medical treatment. The words “period” or “menstruation” weren’t used in advertising – instead, women were treated to advertisements that framed their menstruation as “nature’s handicap” or “accidents”. One ad for menstrual pads claimed to “permit the immaculacy, the exquisite personal daintiness that alone satisfies fastidious women”, suggesting that women should be pure, delicate, beautiful and always striving for perfection. It seems that periods were seen as something wrong with our bodies, a glitch in our otherwise pure and dainty demeanour, with a lot of shame and secrecy attached.
Whilst ads from around the 1950s onwards stopped selling the idea of menstruation as an illness, the messages didn’t get a whole lot better. The use of colour (mainly blue and white) suggested that period blood was embarrassing or shameful and that women should always be clean, pure and sanitary. Liquids used to demonstrate the absorbency of period products were blue, with blue also used as a dominant colour in the backgrounds and the costumes used in ads. The censoring of period blood reinforced the earlier ideas of periods being shameful, and by calling period products “sanitary products”, advertisers sold women the message that periods were dirty, that a woman on her period was unclean. Ads often featured women wearing white, further promoting the idea of the “purity” of women (and, as Dr Connory points out in a radio interview, “quite racial”, with white being seen as clean and pure, and most models or actors in the ads being white). One ad for “deodorant tampons” (side note: I’m sure none of us are surprised that some people developed allergic reactions to the fragrance) shown on TV here in NZ during the ‘70s claims that “freshness in a tampon helps me feel feminine”. Mega eye roll, right?
The idea of periods being secret and shameful was pervasive in advertising until somewhat recently. Dr Connory tells us that “teenagers gossiping in private spaces were pictured in ads from 1939 to 1995”, and some ads were targeted at mothers discussing the “source of embarrassment” in private with their daughters. Various ads in the ‘80s and ‘90s sold period products without ever actually mentioning periods or their products, such as this odd Stayfree ad that NZ women were treated to in the ‘80s, strengthening the idea of periods needing to stay secret. Even when products such as tampons were actually mentioned in the ads, the focus was more on thin white women wearing white or running around the beach in togs, rather than on the act of menstruation (despite the fact that, even in recent years, many people reported avoiding swimming and wearing light colours when on their period). Not only were women being sold the idea that periods were secret and shameful, they were also being sold the idea that they should be free, happy and thin whilst on their period – cramps, heavy flows, bloating and self-care were definitely not part of the advertising narrative. We can guess that, as well as feeling ashamed of their period, women may also have felt ashamed of the symptoms they experienced whilst on their period. After all, if the women on the TV ads were smiling, running around with friends and wearing white while they were menstruating, wouldn’t you think there was something wrong with you if all you wanted to do whilst on your period was take a sick day, run a bath and switch off from the world for a while?
Although things began to improve from the 2000s, depictions of women weren’t necessarily always positive, with one 2012 ad in particular managing to be both sexist and transphobic, showing women to be petty and competitive whilst simultaneously suggesting that you’re only a real woman if you menstruate. Seeing actual period products in ads became more normal, though we didn’t necessarily see them actually being used for menstruation; instead, we saw tampons being used impractically for things such as toys for a kitten – great to see period products being normalised, but still no sign of actual menstruation (and still no sign of anyone who isn’t thin, white and cis).
Thankfully, advertising for menstrual products has come a long way in the past couple of years. We have ads that show menstruation on TV – focussing not only on the product but also on the actual experience of menstruation. Whilst this pad ad received a few complaints due to the use of blood (shock horror!), the fact that the complaints were thrown out and the ads continued to be shown on TV tells us that our values and behaviours around menstruation have loosened, with the focus of shame and secrecy being replaced with an attitude of normalcy and honesty. Dr Connory also points out that advertising spaces have shifted from magazines and TV to social media and Internet sites. With influencers, small businesses and “everyday people” now being able to take up space online, large advertising companies no longer have the same monopoly over the menstruation conversation that they used to. We’re seeing a shift from language that focuses on women to language that is inclusive of all people who experience menstruation (we can probably thank JK Rowling and her transphobic messaging for pushing forward the conversation on that!). We’re seeing honest conversations about menstruation – not only the blood itself, but also the symptoms and feelings we experience when menstruating, normalising symptoms such as bloating and encouraging people to connect with their cycles.
Our journey towards fully embracing menstruation may be only just beginning, with the shame and stigma of the past 100 years still lingering for many of us, but we’ve come a long way since the days when we saw menstruation as an illness, and the steady progress towards inclusivity and understanding that’s taken place in the past few years can only give us hope. So where to next? I, for one, am hoping that there will be a push for a society that works around our cycles, with flexible work hours, time off when we need it, and with menstruation being seen as a chance to unwind and reconnect rather than as an inconvenience… it doesn’t hurt to dream, right?
Written by Shardae Grenfell, AWWA Guest Blogger