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The role advertising plays in the representation of menstruation

Menstruation happens to half of the world’s population once a month and marks the start of a woman’s reproductive years, something so natural that literally creates life “continues to exist as a silenced, disregarded, and at times abject or disgusting aspect of women’s daily lives.” (Fahs, 2016) Menstruation represents a way in which women can share a bodily connection, language and almost a solidarity with each other but this is unfortunately in short supply nowadays. Since the first-period product advertisement was introduced in the 1920s, they have been representing menstruation as a ‘problem’ that must be kept secret. This started a decade of advertisements that employed menstruation as a taboo area. This is a research essay that will discuss how through advertising these brands have started a familiar theme of patriarchal perspective that negatively shaped self-objectification and social stigma theories that have first begun to sell women a problem about menstruation before selling them a solution.

“A leak can attract unwanted attention.” (Stubbs, 2008)

A quote that is captioned from a menstrual advertisement which shows a scuba diver just a few feet away from a shark. This advert depicts menstrual blood as life-threatening if it leaks, thus showcasing the seriousness with keeping your menstrual cycle a secret, which as advertised, can be applied through the use of these products. The media is extremely influential when it comes to representation, particularly in advertising as it is pervasive in our lives, having the ability to shape our beliefs and values which can be used to either “inform, empower, shame or spread stigma.” (Bell”,2017) Advertisements are all around us, we see them on television, on the internet, in magazines, and on billboards. Adverts are not anything new to us and are “very effective in convincing us that we need products to solve problems we are unaware of until some campaign persuades us that something natural about us is really unnatural and unacceptable.” (Wood, 1997) Many individuals don’t realise how effective they can be as they can leave an impact on the viewers’ mind and play a huge role in moulding the culture and attitude of the people.

The industry for menstrual care claims its main motive is to help women break free from the taboos but in reality, it is doing the opposite. From the beginning of menstrual advertising, the product descriptions were excluded, and the majority of these brands came in brown paper bags in order to keep it discreet. The first print adverts for menstruation were introduced in the 1920s which used terms ‘sanitary aprons’ or ‘belts’ that forever promised women “convenience and a solution to an intimate feminine problem” (Bell, 2017) The advertising of menstrual care products has the idea that in order to be normal is to have no menstruating state at all and encourages to the audience that if women want to grow and develop then this is the facade that needs to be presented worldwide. The portrayal of periods in these adverts supports a stigma that encourages females to embarrassed about a process that is biological. Stigmas that can prevent girls from their education, work, and usual activities.

Johnson & Johnson created a brand called Modess in 1926 which aim was to target women on their periods, however, the ad featured elegantly dressed women in a graceful setting with a text that read: ‘Modess…Because.’ A slogan that was used to capitalize on the people’s refusal to discuss menstruation while binding those feelings into a brand name Modess meaning modesty. Although, there was no description of what this product was, which left the audience in the dark. It is very rare to find mention of the body or symptoms of what menstruation is, Elissa Stein, stated in her book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation that “Branding of menstrual products does its best to keep our bodies completely separate from the equation.” (Stein and Kim, 2009) Coded language started to become the norm for adverting menstruation contributing to the cultural shame. Looking at the wording on menstrual products we can see that tampons commonly used the word ‘flow’ rather than ‘period.’ These words that denoted the level of menstruation such as ‘regular’, ‘super’, and ‘super plus’ had started to replace the general conversation of the monthly cycle entirely. This all started because of advertisers when they came up with the terms ‘sanitary protection’ and ‘feminine hygiene’ which were just code words that people started to learn and use themselves that meant menstruation without having to actually say it. “It’s way more abstract and the one message that it does give about your body is that if anybody found out that you had your period, it would be embarrassing and shameful.” (Stein and Kim, 2009) It became a language used that covers the purpose of the product, faintly ignoring the female consumers which laid the foundations for the defamation of menstruation for nearly a century. Periods were and still is a taboo subject that are never directly spoken about and it even took until 1985 for the word period to be used on a TV advertisement.

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Following this, many companies felt they were now capable of showing pads on television but also needed to balance how they were going to demonstrate how the products’ absorption works which soon came the ubiquitous blue liquid used to represent menstrual fluid. There are many other colours that could have been used that represent fluids from the human body such as pink, yellow or purple but by contrast, blue was decided, and the excuse was that the colour blue was to save the audience from the distasteful sight. The colour blue is acknowledged as a clean colour, it has a calming effect and clean connotation, therefore suggesting it stimulates many cleaning products that also come in blue packaging such as bleach. This emphasizes the need for cleanliness when on your period and echoes just how uncomfortable people are when talking about menstruation. Even though blood is regularly shown in many horror films and medical dramas, the blue liquid is an attempt on the advertiser’s behalf to make the process sound appealing and proposes that blood is only socially acceptable when it’s not coming out of a vagina, adding to the pressures of period shaming.

Menstruation has forever been depicted as a hygiene problem within advertising, reinforcing that deodorizing is essential when on your period, giving off the message that periods are dirty and smelly thus so are the women who have them. The deodorant industry for vaginal cleansing is a clear example of these manufacturers establishing an issue so they can, therefore, sell the solution. Lysol is a brand today that is known for creating cleaning products and since their early ads they have told women that if they didn’t wash their vaginas out with these poisonous chemicals then their husbands would leave them for being unclean. “Doctors had recorded 193 Lysol poisonings and five deaths from the product” (Tone, 2002) Even with these side effects and tragic deaths, Lysol was still advertising their product to women as safe and pleasant. Women started to use such products for douching as it was cheap and commonly used as a form of birth control until the contraceptive pill came around. Even today many modern product adverts such as Always repeat a similar message, asserting that you must use their panty liners if you can’t stay in the shower all day. It has turned menstruation into a commodified, commercialised and patriarchal notion of being clean.

Dyer (1986) suggests that “adverts have a means of representation and meanings construct ideology within themselves through the intervention of external codes which are located in society”, he believes that “the ideology of advertisements is so powerful; it is naturalized by the image”. Upon research, this became obvious through a semiotic analysis of menstrual care adverts, which is the study of signs and symbols and how we represent and interpret them. They are often used in advertising to signify the advertiser’s message. Semiotics identifies how signs are used to “represent something, construct our identities as consumers and how they influence culture.” (Džanić, 2013) One of the most common symbols used in advertising is the visual image of the product being sold, for instance, looking at the brand Always who advertised for their new Always Infinity pads. Here we see an image of a period pad that was framed in the centre of the poster. However, the image associate’s menstruation with natural disaster as there is a tornado swirling into the pad with the slogan, ‘Have a Happy Period”,’ this seems to indicate that without their product women will have an unhappy period or symptoms that are related to a tornado. Here we can decode the message of the advertisement, as the signifier is the physical image of the menstrual pad and the signified is the literal reading that the only way women will survive during their ‘heavy flow’ is by using Always Infinity pads. The hidden messages in these advertisements are actually propaganda and taking a semiotic analysis we can see how endless ‘feminine hygiene’ adverts have helped negatively shape the understanding of a female’s menstrual cycle.

Furthermore, the way in which women are portrayed in menstrual advertising are extremely reliant on gender stereotypes with dominated images of women with perfect bodies, the advertising industry continues to present a distorted representation of what it means to be a female on her period. Smith (1990) believes “the constructed ideal of feminine beauty as thin, tall, young and white seems to penetrate everyday practices and discourses.” By using such imagery in period product advertisements, suggests that these are the only type of women who get periods and starts to leave an effect on those who menstruate when it comes to understanding their bodies. A fantasy girl is created by using thin, well dressed and scrubbed up looking females with the intention that ‘women can do anything on their period.’ In addition, the majority of these advertisements use images of women wearing white clothing and in particular white clothing for the bottom half of the body which is short and tight. The use of white is to show the audience how much these models trust the product and feel confident enough to wear white knowing there won’t be any leakage when using such a product. Whilst wearing their white clothing, feminine care brands seem to advertise these women playing sports or on some type of an adventure which has become a traditional trait in period product advertising. Advocating for the chance to wear white clothing and be able to do extreme sports on your period is rather naïve but brands such as Always and Tampax have found it a beneficial strategy by using happy, fit and carefree women to sell their products.

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Moreover, these particular adverts are creating a sublime of which are not a true representation of reality. “The sublime is the creature of culture and is therefore central to visual culture, advertisement creates sublime image which rarely represents real picture of society” (Mirzoeff, 2009) The indication that you can do anything on your period at first seems to empower but any woman who menstruates will know herself that this is in fact far from reality. Women feel cranky, crampy and get bloated on their periods, that’s the truth. Tanith Oxley a feminist who studies into menstruation done an investigation into women’s experience with it. Upon her research she found women go through some bodily changes such as swollen breasts and stomach which makes them look bloated. These women also mentioned the physical pain they go through that has to be managed through pain-killers. This pain puts major restrictions on their social, working, sporting and sexual lifestyles. This is far from what we see on menstrual advertising, however, what she did find out was that these women mirrored a similar theme represented in the ads as “they felt self-conscious during the menses, preferred tampons because they are ‘less noticeable’ than pads, believed that menstrual blood is distasteful to self and others, and supported the sex taboo.” (Oxley, 1998) The female figure that is presented is constructed to what a woman should look like and how they should act. Advertisements as such have started to determine the way women should live in the modern world and in the ‘femcare industry”,’ this has become a problem as many girls and women are seeing these images and start to believe this is what society wants from them and expects them to be.

In addition, the field of advertising is somewhat male dominated where females fall victim to popular culture and since the late twentieth century, these ad agencies were run by men who don’t obviously experience menstruation and therefore do not understand it. As previously mentioned, Tampax is a popular brand for feminine products, which created an advert for Valentines Day. This print advert is a series by Leo Burnett, an advertising executive who has previously worked on ads that are extremely sexualized by representing the idea of masculinity. A similar ‘mans man’ character is portrayed in this Tampax ad. The use of mise-en-scene such as roses, chocolate, mood lighting, dark red sheets all contributes to the romantic Valentine’s setting. In the centre of the frame stands a dominant man in a white suit, with a light that shines through the window onto him that signifies his purity. He stands with his legs and arms wide open taking up the majority of the space casting him as the strong heroic figure. In the advert, we can see gifts that are clear symbols of the man’s power, and the red storm outside the window that represents the woman’s natural body but interestingly, the person to whom this product is designed for ‘a woman’ is absent from the photo entirely. It’s frustrating that a brand that sells a product to reduce discomfort and leaks for women didn’t even frame a tampon in the advert but instead used a male figure with a text: ‘Mother Nature please, the room is already paid for.’ Valentine’s day comes with the expectation of sex for the man, and the woman’s period becomes an inconvenience for him. The overall construction of the advert suggests that males have legitimate authority over female bodies and Tampax promise to help the men ‘outsmart mother nature’ by restoring sexual ability again if they use their power to prompt women into purchasing this product. This shame that adverts continuously represent of menstruation reinforces the idea that women are incapable of the thing’s men are capable of and in this case, it’s that a male figure is more suited for the ad even though it’s targeted at a female audience.

The former chief executive of the underwear brand Thinx, Miki Agrawal reported that in 2015 one of her print advertisements was rejected to be used on the subway by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The adverts simply include models, peeled grapefruit and an egg with the slogan that read: ‘Underwear for women with periods’ and was overturned due to the nature of the language used but instead they used a promotion advert for the latest 50 shades of grey film that portrayed a woman being choked with a necktie. Agrawal designed Thinx underwear as a replaced for pads and tampons so that on days when a woman’s period isn’t heavy, she can feel comfortable and confident knowing these pants are absorbent and resistant to stains. She explains that there have been previous ads that have been used without censure, for example, those for breast augmentation which used a grapefruit to represent female breasts but when it was used to represent another female anatomy it isn’t acceptable. Agrawal states “there’s just such a sexist double standard right now in the world of advertising”,” (Coughlin”,2015) which reinforces the patriarchal society that we live in as the topic of a period still makes people uncomfortable. Agrawal isn’t the first to call out the oversexualisation of women in advertising and is committed to taking a stand in destigmatizing menstruation through the work of Thinx.

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Women have started to take in the negative representation of menstruation within the advertising and have led many of them to take a step away from menstruation with the introduction of cycle-stopping pills, commonly known as the contraceptive pill. This pill can have some major and long-term effects on women’s physical and mental health but due to the cultural shame that has been pressured onto women for years, they would rather endure this instead of the embarrassment of having a period.

In contrast, the feminine hygiene brand Bodyform decided to challenge the period taboo in 2017 when they created an advert ‘Blood is Normal’ that uses different scenarios that address the areas of period shaming. This campaign aims to call an end to the taboos and conducted an online survey of 10″,000 women and men and found that 74% of them would like to see more realistic representations of menstruation in advertisements. Furthermore, in the advertisement that is why we see depictions of period blood on a pad instead of blue liquid, a contrast that advertising created. The advert contains many scenes that reinforce the normality of periods: we see a couple having sex while one is menstruating, a woman openly asking for a pad in public and a man buying pads. We also see women with period pain clenching onto themselves because of the cramps, an out-of-office auto-reply that states someone’s not coming into the office, as she has a very heavy period. These are all realistic day to day things that happen to women on their monthly cycle and they should not be ashamed about. The ad ends with the message: “Periods are normal, showing them should be too.” According to Daniel Wolfe, director of the advertisement and surprisingly a man stated that during the pre-production many articles on periods that were run at a similar timeframe helped inform the production on what they should include. “Can’t wait for the day when women no longer pass tampons to a friend like they are a Class A drug” was one comment that proved highly motivating, he explains in a statement. “We wanted to create something that provided a platform for discussion rather than trying to tell people what to think”,” he adds. (Jardine, 2018) However, this is only a single advert from a single brand, and it has taken until 2017 to see an advertisement like this.

Based on my research within this field it is evident that the role of advertising has played a significant role in contributing to the cultural taboo of menstruation, which has a deep-rooted phenomenon. This paper has highlighted how advertisements by the feminine hygiene industry have not only had a negative influence on women but society in general. Menstruation has become viewed by both genders as a problem in need of a solution, banking on the idea that female consumers should feel anxiety over the threat of menstruation. These companies establish a friendship with their audience through the power of advertisements by using a particular language such as ‘Have a Happy Period’ but in reality, they don’t care what type of period you have, they are just using this for their own profit. The notion of self-objectification has become familiar to women in the advertising of menstrual care brands leaving them prioritising the question of ‘How do they look? rather than ‘How do they feel?’ on their periods. It seems that the paradox of menstrual discourse is that whilst it states its liberating women from the burdens of their body, it is actually denying feminine authority by continuously representing women under a patriarchal light and in need of protection.

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