We’re so over the marketing myth of the perfect period. Or are we?
A laughing white woman rollerskates along the beach in a skintight unitard, her long blonde hair swirling in the sunlight to the soundtrack of feel-good tech-house. A white woman dances on a beach in a skintight bikini, her long blond hair tied up in a high bun as she smiles to herself. Two white women sit smiling in a cafe, their long blond hair intermingling as they smile conspiratorially together.
This isn’t a game of spot the difference but a list of actual scenes from real femcare ads. They’re chapters in a story we’ve been sold about how periods are supposed to be. Thin, white women have periods. There’s no blood to be seen. Women just love menstruating! There’s no diversity, no room for realistic human emotion, in short nothing the average woman can actually relate to.
Thankfully the rollerskating-with-period trope has become a bit of a joke these days and we’re seeing a new breed of femcare marketing that’s much more inclusive. But have we completely shaken the stories we were raised on?
Men were like, ‘Oh, I can crack this.’ So you had a male lens on it
Katie Lancaster of Global Rose is a brand strategist who’s worked with leading femcare brands for several decades. Although Katie’s work as a planner involved lots of international research, meeting women all over the world and uncovering emotional and practical insights about periods, when it came to making adverts themselves, the task would generally fall to male creatives.
“Men were like, ‘Oh, I can crack this.’ So you had a male lens on it, a man’s idea of what humour was, a man’s perception of what having a period was. And it was just totally off kilter. A lot of the reason you’ve got all those white-trousered, rollerskating, pert-bottomed girls was because those ads were done by guys.”
There were also more prosaic reasons for the all-pervasive blue liquid and lab coats. “One of the big problems in the old days of broadcast media was that we had so many regulations about what we could and couldn’t do,” Katie explains. “Yes there was conservatism on the side of the clients, but there was also a mass of ridiculous regulation that we had to tread carefully through.”
Luckily all that changed a decade or so ago when new developments in neuroscience began to influence the advertising industry. “We knew that people make decisions not with their rational brain but with their emotional brain. So that got the big corporate giants to wake up and think, actually we really do need to understand women, and we really do need to talk to them, and it might even be better if we got women to talk to women. The digital age has permitted the explosion of female-oriented products there are now.”
It’s only in the past year we’ve seen blood appear in period product adverts
But despite the new age of more insightful marketing of femcare products, some of the more subtle assumptions in femcare marketing have held fast, often in ways we might not even be aware of. The fact that it’s only in the past year we’ve seen blood appear in period product adverts says a lot about how far we still have to go. And for all the stripping away of taboos we’re now seeing, there still tends to be a prescriptive narrative to a lot of the mainstream marketing we’re exposed to. It’s wonderful to be empowered, but if that’s the only version of the world we see, if women are effectively being told they must feel great about their period, isn’t that just as restrictive as what went before? What if we don’t find periods empowering? What if we find them painful, depressing or inconvenient? Does that make us a bad feminist? What if, God forbid, we’re just neutral about our periods and don’t feel much about them at all?
What we’d like to see is simply the chance to have our periods however we have our periods, and to see a range of experiences represented in advertising so we can all find something to relate to. Until then, it’s well worth checking in to make sure that rollerskating woman in the unitard isn’t hanging around somewhere in our sub-conscious, haunting us with her cheesy smile and long blond hair.
Three quick ways to counteract the period-ad brainwashing
1. Follow hashtags like #bloodnormal and #freeperiods that seek to normalise periods.
2. If you’re interested in getting in tune with how you really feel (both physically and emotionally) at different stages of your cycle, you could try meditation. Apps like Calm and Headspace have free meditations to try, and the positive effect is immediate.
3. Notice little feelings of shame and when they pop up at unexpected times. Do you feel like you need to hide your period products up your sleeve on the way to the toilet at work? If you have a leak, do you blame yourself for being incapable of managing your period, rather than the product you used for failing? Just notice these moments as they happen – awareness is a great first step towards shaking off that rollerskatin’ shame.