Thursday, 18 March 2010

Surfing the crimson wave

Stephen King's debut novel Carrie (and its subsequent film adaptation) opened with a sixteen year-old girl getting her first period and freaking out. Raised by a religious fanatic, the late bloomer has been kept in the dark about her 'curse' and thinks she's dying. Her kind classmates help her out by screaming, jeering and throwing tampons at the poor, confused wretch, - much like an editorial meeting run by Paul Dacre.

It's easy to look at Carrie and laugh that someone could be so naive and misinformed about her own body's development. But actually, it's not such a stretch when you think about it. The ongoing debate about sex education in schools, combined with a neo-traditional obsession with teen abstinence, means that there must be thousands of teenagers suddenly contemplating their mortality in bathrooms across the United States.

The thing is, menstruation makes people squeamish. Blood and body parts are fine on CSI, but not when it comes to women's bodies. As a result, advertisers on both sides of the pond have spent decades finding all kinds of euphemisms and analogies to sell sanitary products.

Using words like comfort, freedom and freshness, the ad campaigns have grown increasingly oblique, making it hard to tell whether they're supposed to be selling tampons or Febreze. We see footage of women roller-blading and dancing, or laughing with their arms around their friends for a group photo. We don't see them rummaging in their handbags, gorging on Toblerone or tapping a colleague on the shoulder and asking for a 'favour'.

After years of evasive language, ad agency JWT has thrown in the sanitary towel. They've had enough of slow-motion and white linen trousers. Arm-in-arm with tampon brand Kotex, they've decided to tell it how it is, making the bold assumption that women are capable of thinking for themselves.

But not everyone agrees. Their first attempt was a straight-talking ad that had women talking about their vaginas. Cut to a scene of a lot of very puzzled, and slightly uncomfortable TV network executives. "You can't use the 'v' word" they cried, despite the fact that more than half the population have one.

When their second attempt used the ridiculous euphemism "down there" (where is that exactly, Mexico?) - they still weren't happy, with two networks refusing to run the ad. So the agency channeled their frustration into a great new campaign that pokes fun at people's 'ick-factor'.

Rather than telling the truth, the new ad is a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek lie, that portrays the kind of non-existent airheads that other agencies have in mind whenever they ask the props department for a beaker of blue liquid.

As Richard Adams pointed out on the Guardian website today, UK 'sanitary' brands are a little more more uninhibited - Mooncup recently launched a new website called However, even here there's still a fascination with euphemisms, inviting visitors to tell everyone what "you lovingly call your lady garden, fru fru or coochie."

These may be small steps in ad land, but they're giant leaps for womankind. And if anyone has any objections, allow me to suggest where you can stick them.

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