CA’s Rosie Hilder ar­gues that de­spite some no­table break­throughs, brand­ing for pe­riod prod­ucts re­mains out of step with re­al­ity

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CA’s Rosie Hilder cri­tiques the brand­ing of pe­riod prod­ucts

Brand­ing for san­i­tary prod­ucts has al­ways been, well, a bit pants. The pack­ag­ing is usu­ally gar­ishly bright and the ads show young, at­trac­tive women roller­skat­ing, climb­ing moun­tains and gal­li­vant­ing around in white trousers. And then there’s the un­nat­u­ral-look­ing blue liq­uid that is poured onto pads, as if men­stru­at­ing were some sort of strange science ex­per­i­ment in­stead of a bod­ily func­tion that roughly half the world’s pop­u­la­tion ex­pe­ri­ence monthly for an av­er­age of 40 years of their lives.

I don’t know who came up with the idea of equat­ing hav­ing your pe­riod with a mag­i­cal burst of en­ergy, but given that most women I know don’t want to roller­skate or wear white trousers on a nor­mal day, let alone when they are leak­ing blood, I se­ri­ously doubt it was a woman. And as any­one who’s grown up with th­ese prod­ucts can at­test, us­ing them doesn’t make you feel any bet­ter. They don’t make cramps go away or stop you feel­ing moody or tired.

In re­cent years, some of the shame and em­bar­rass­ment around men­stru­a­tion has lifted as women have opened up about the sub­ject in the pub­lic do­main. In 2015, Rupi Kaur caused a vi­ral sen­sa­tion by In­sta­gram­ming a ‘shock­ing’ picture of her, fully clothed but sport­ing a pe­riod stain; Olympic medal­ist Fu Yuan­hui con­fessed that her pe­riod may have af­fected her per­for­mance in 2016; and the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of san­i­tary prod­ucts as ‘lux­ury goods’ has been de­bated in Par­lia­ment. Some brands have lis­tened; some are even lead­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.

Both big play­ers in the UK san­i­tary towel mar­ket, Body­form and Al­ways, have taken steps to bring their cam­paigns in line with mod­ern at­ti­tudes. Al­ways claims it is ‘on a mis­sion to boost girls’ con­fi­dence’. Its Black Pen­cil-win­ning Like a Girl cam­paign showed how girls’ perceptions of their abil­i­ties nose­dive once they hit ado­les­cence; a new (and nau­se­at­ing) ad is about em­brac­ing fail­ure. While the points it’s try­ing to make may be valid, equat­ing con­fi­dence with san­i­tary tow­els is ques­tion­able. And the brand’s past and per­sis­tent mes­sage that no one should know you’re men­stru­at­ing has also ar­guably played a part in girls’ neg­a­tive self-im­age.

In 2016, Body­form ran a cam­paign with the strapline ‘no blood should hold us back,’ which showed ac­tual women bleed­ing, al­beit be­cause they were do­ing sport. The sig­nif­i­cance of show­ing quite graphic images of blood in an ad about men­stru­a­tion should not be un­der­es­ti­mated. An­other Body­form ad saw a woman putting a san­i­tary towel in her pants, in a toi­let, for the first time ever. In line with old-school pe­riod ads, she was also a trapeze artist in a white leo­tard. But the ad sug­gests this was her job, and not some­thing she just felt like do­ing be­cause her uterus was shed­ding its lin­ing.

One com­pany that has never been shy about what it’s of­fer­ing is Moon­cup, whose mar­ket­ing for its re­us­able men­strual cups has typ­i­cally (and sen­si­bly) fo­cused on the en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nom­i­cal ben­e­fits of us­ing its prod­uct. Its lat­est ad takes a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. A hu­mor­ous and a clever play on tra­di­tional sto­ries of men res­cu­ing women, it has a killer strapline: ‘pe­ri­ods, with­out the drama’. But the ad’s mes­sage and story is not very clear if you don’t know what a Moon­cup is, which many don’t.

Across the pond, in­no­va­tive al­ter­na­tives de­vel­oped by and aimed at mil­len­nial women are dis­rupt­ing the mar­ket. Thinx sells ‘pe­riod panties’ – a revo­lu­tion­ary idea in it­self – plus tam­pons that come in blood red boxes de­pict­ing an im­age of a vagina, with the slide off outer layer re­veal­ing a picture of a tam­pon un­der­neath. Its ad­verts de­scribe the re­al­i­ties of pe­ri­ods in a clear and en­gag­ing way, and have been praised for break­ing taboos left right and cen­tre.

The own­ers of FLEX, who sell a men­strual disc that can be worn for ‘mess-free pe­riod sex’ also de­serve ku­dos for dar­ing to men­tion ‘sex’ and ‘pe­riod’ in the same sen­tence. FLEX’s sleek black, gold and white pack­ag­ing is more akin to ex­pen­sive sex toys or make-up than ‘fem­i­nine care’. But at $20 a month, plus ship­ping, that mess-free pe­riod sex does not come cheap. And as Paula Scher elo­quently re­minds us with her sim­ple yet ef­fec­tive brand­ing for US char­ity Pe­riod Eq­uity, pe­ri­ods are not lux­u­ries.

Re­flect­ing that its prod­ucts are nec­es­sary ba­sics, with­out mak­ing them look unattrac­tive, LOLA’s or­ganic tam­pons and pads have a sim­ple and chic feel. In the US, they also come de­liv­ered to your door in cus­tomis­able boxes, tak­ing into ac­count that not ev­ery pe­riod day re­quires the same prod­uct. With sim­i­lar muted colours to LOLA, Pearlfisher’s brand­ing for Chi­nese tam­pon com­pany Fémme is fem­i­nine, del­i­cate and dis­creet, and was de­vel­oped af­ter ex­ten­sive re­search of taboos around us­ing tam­pons in China. The dif­fer­ences be­tween Fémme and prod­ucts in the West high­light the fact that dif­fer­ent ap­proaches are needed in dif­fer­ent cul­tures.

Th­ese are all steps in the right di­rec­tion, but we need to go fur­ther. We need more brand­ing that ed­u­cates ev­ery­one about pe­ri­ods – men too. We need more dif­fer­ent types of men­stru­at­ing hu­mans rep­re­sented in pe­riod ads that con­tain words such as ‘vagina’, ‘bleed­ing’ or ‘stain’. We need cam­paigns show­ing that this nat­u­ral process, which sus­tains hu­man life, is not some­thing to be ashamed of, but that not be­ing ashamed doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean we want to go on zip­wires or climb moun­tains. And we also need to clear up once and for all, that there is ab­so­lutely noth­ing blue about men­strual blood. What kind of ‘pe­riod brand­ing’ do you want to see? Tweet your thoughts to @Com­put­erArts us­ing #De­signMat­ters

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