Alex Casey takes a look back at the period ads of the late 90s and early 2000s, with the help of advertising guru Jill Brinsdon.
These days I can time my targeted ads for menstrual products like clockwork. Period trackers, bleedable underwear and menstrual cups all flood in on Facebook and Instagram several days before my cycle is supposed to start. On day three or four, that’s when the Clear Blue pregnancy test ads start rolling in. The rest of the time: chocolate. And engagement rings. Take the bloody hint, fertile woman! Time to shack up and start reproducing!
While it’s concerning that my telephone knows my uterus better than I do, it’s a hell of a lot better than the spritely sanitary ads of the 90s and early 2000s. Growing up, advertising taught me that a period was a secret. And something about wings. Lovely big, sticky wings, attached to huge pads that could soak up approximately one litre of blue liquid. You can wear them under skinny jeans! But don’t talk about them! Wear a tampon with a white bikini! But also shhhh!
[A note: There is a question in the above interview which implies that men don’t get periods. I apologise for my poor phrasing – trans men and non binary people deal with the realities of menstruation as well.]
Jill Brinsdon, rumoured to be the first female creative director in New Zealand, knows how that particular extra absorbent cotton sausage of period advertising is made. “If you watch most of those old ads now, you can actually see the research fingers all over them,” she says. “Also, very few would have been made or conceived by women. There’s a lot more in creative departments now, but in the 90s and early 2000s they would have been authored by mostly dudes.”
“You see a real formula. There’s a problem, there’s a potential solution, then there’s an actual solution and a happy customer at the end.” Watching as many period ads as I could find while researching for episode one of On the Rag, I started to see another set of patterns emerging. Sorting the most memorable ads into five categories (and one bonus round for fun), I took my findings to Jill for scientific analysis.
GENRE #1: WHITE WOMEN IN WHITE
According to these ads, the only people who have periods are thin white women. We know this isn’t the case, just as we know that nobody in their right mind would wear a white swimsuit when they’re well and truly in the red zone. “They would have done about $250,000 worth of research here to find out that we want to feel safe, so they put her in a white outfit,” says Jill. “If she’s in white, she’s not bleeding out. She would really be wearing red togs or dark togs, but that’s not the Carefree life, I guess.”
This ad left Jill more confused than anything, yet another instance of reckless white tog wearing and a bizarre Animorphs reveal. “Tiny wee bikinis for tiny wee tampons and a tiny wee period,” she says. “I think it’s really weird that she slips her robe on and then it cuts to this little tampon in its silk sheath. What does it mean?” I’ll tell you what it means: more unrealistic body standards for women.
GENRE #2: BOYFRIENDS ARE DUMMIES
“The period is a marvellous mystery to many, many men,” says Jill, “so I can understand there being some discomfort and ads trying to change that role.” The definitive dummy boyfriend is in Libra invisible pad ad, a hapless mister who adorns himself with sanitary pads to create a range of high fashion runway looks. Shantay, you stay.
“I guess what this ad is saying is: if it sticks on his t-shirt then it will stick on your undies,” says Jill. “I’d be telling him to buy me the next lot, because that’s about $12 worth wasted, mate.”
Libra’s ‘The Comparison’ ad, where another hapless boyfriend compares tampon size to penis size, felt more like an attempt at securing an award rather than selling a product, says Jill. “They’ve broken out from the dross here, but I find it really hard to imagine a woman watching that and feeling like it’s talking to them as the target audience.” Speaking of target audiences, who can forget the time pads became a solution to a leaky waterbed?
GENRE #3: PUSSIES AND BEAVERS
A really easy way to stop thinking about humans bleeding periodically from their orifices is to not have humans involved at all. Why not use a funny beaver like in the Mel Gibson movie? Lets get that critter oogling men on the beach! Lets get that critter using a pad like a loofah! Or perhaps an eye mask? Don’t think about genitals. Don’t think about genitals. Look at the funny beaver.
This one could fall under the hapless boyfriend genre, but also embraces the use of a cute kitten to make the central concept more palatable. “Does the cat really need nine tampons to play with?” asks Jill. “What do they want me, the person at home, to learn? That tampons aren’t icky? That they are normal? At least there are some things in this ad that I can relate to. When you get your period you never have a tampon around, so there’s a lovely truth there.”
GENRE #4: ANYTHING BUT BLOOD
The most important rule of period ads to never show a drop of blood. The most typical replacement, which has now become a joke in itself, is the use of a glowing blue liquid. Observe it here, dropping from a great height to be absorbed into some voluptuous silky tampon wings. The angel’s share, in a way.
“It’s creating a clinical, test-like environment,” says Jill. “If it was me conceiving it, I’d be looking at the colour wheel and looking at my options. You wouldn’t make it green because it would be like a martian or Shrek period. You wouldn’t go into the colours of blood because it’s too primal. So at the other end of the colour spectrum, opposite red, is blue.”
And who can forget the time that a woman used a pad to soak up literal dog wee? Classic. “Pee!” exclaimed Jill. “So dog urine is okay to show, but blood is not. The makers of this ad would have needed to find a fresh way to show the products absorbency and its ease, and I think it’s a great example of that. It’s also a bit of girl power without the togs and the running down the beach. Hats off to them.”
GENRE #5: LET’S GET ACTIVE
The final (and most enduring) genre of period ad is The Active Woman, the one who can take her period to a music festival or out for a night on the town, or to boot camp (or is it?) with the bestie. “The research would show that we want to still be active,” says Jill. “That’s why everyone who wears a tampon can suddenly windsurf or jetski – I’ve always been very disappointed that I can do neither of those things when I wear a tampon.”
BONUS GENRE: CELEBRITIES BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS
Louise Wallace made her money the old fashioned way: she starred in an Australian tampon ad in the 80s.
Courtney Cox in this Tampax ad is enough to make you… Scream
And I’d bet this tampon weighed… 21 Grams….
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