The ad industry has long had a difficult time talking to women about, um, you know - it's finally catching up
Let's be frank: The advertising we see for tampons, pads and liners is embarrassingly bad. Those queer commercials with women dancing about in white when they have their periods (and who does that?) are cringe inducing, and even the ad people who churn out this work are rightfully ashamed of it. In fact, this reporter tried to do a story on the sad state of fem-care advertising (as it is known) more than 10 years ago, and not one advertising agency creative responsible for the silly imagery and lame euphemisms would consent to an interview. Meanwhile, it was impossible to find a director who would even admit to directing any of the commercials. Can you blame them?
But A-list directors - and they were all men, by the way - were fighting to get in on the latest Kotex campaign, according to JWT executive creative director Sarah Barclay.
That's because Kimberly-Clark's Kotex brand made a bold, genre-busting move, relying on a consortium made up of JWT, Marina Maher Communications, Organic and Mindshare World to produce Break the Cycle, an integrated marketing campaign aimed at women 18- to 24-years-old that gleefully pokes fun at fem-care advertising and encourages open, honest talk about menstruation and vaginal health while promoting the new U by Kotex line of tampons, pads and liners.
The campaign kicked off last March with a clever introductory commercial titled "Reality Check," which ran on TV networks ranging from The CW to MTV, although a reference to the vagina had to be edited out after at least three networks refused to air the spot in its original form.
Directed by Tim Godsall of Biscuit Filmworks, "Reality Check" finds a young woman musing about menstruation. "How do I feel about my period? We're like this," she says, crossing two of her fingers as if to signify that her period is a cherished friend. "I love it."
Accompanied by imagery that corresponds to her thoughts, the woman tells us - tongue planted firmly in cheek - how she wants to run on the beach and twirl when she has her period - "maybe even in slow motion." She also wants to wear white spandex, and she wants to dance with her friends. "The ads on TV are really helpful because they use that blue liquid," she continues as we see mysterious blue liquid poured onto the crotch of a pair of underwear and also on a pad.
"Reality Check" ultimately asks why tampon ads are so ridiculous and introduces viewers to U by Kotex products. Clearly, the commercial struck a chord - it had been viewed by more than 800,000 people on YouTube at press time.
Kotex isn't just making fun of its competitors, by the way - the company mined its own advertising vaults to find the cheesy footage featured in "Reality Check." "We didn't need to go and poke fun of anybody else," Kotex brand director Aida Flick concedes. "My God, we've done work with girls in white outfits and that blue liquid, so we decided to be honest and say, 'We're just as guilty of it, too, and it's about time we changed.' "
How did Kotex know it was time to change? (And many women would argue that this change has come decades later than it should have.) A Kotex-commissioned 2009 online study, conducted by Harris Interactive and titled "Break the Cycle: A Study on Vaginal Health," found that 70 percent of the more than 1,600 women ages 14 to 35 surveyed felt like the conversation about vaginal health needed to be brought into the 21st century. "We also learned that women felt the advertising in this category was very patriarchal and made them feel like menstruating was dirty and like there should be a shroud of secrecy and shame around it," JWT global business director Merrie Harris reveals.
Acting on this information, Kotex asked JWT to architect a campaign designed to break down the wall of secrecy and shame around menstruation. "The whole concept behind the Break the Cycle campaign is this idea of pulling the mask off of the industry, the way it treats women like they're not as intelligent as they are," Harris says.
Her JWT colleague Barclay adds, "It's about taking the piss out of all the language and metaphors and ridiculous statements this category uses to sell to women and saying, 'We're an honest brand. We work really well, we've got a point of view, and we're not going to bullshit you anymore.' "
In addition to a handful of TV commercials, cheeky Break the Cycle print ads - one reads, "I tied a tampon to my keyring so my brother wouldn't take my car. It worked." - are running in magazines like Teen Vogue and People.
The online portion of the campaign, in which Kotex made a significant investment given that 60 percent of women are more likely to turn to the Internet than they are to other females for period information, according to the Kotex study, includes a Web site, online ads and a series of videos starring the outspoken Khloe Kardashian, her sister, Kim, and their mom, Kris Jenner. In episode one, the Kardashian girls remember when they first got their periods.
Additionally, Khloe appeared at an event in New York City at which she broke down a faux wall and urged people to sign the Kotex Declaration of Real Talk, which encourages people to openly share their questions and concerns about vaginal health. As for why she was eager to get involved in the Kotex campaign (after all, fem-care advertising isn't exactly a magnet for celebrities), Khloe says, "I saw this as a rare and amazing opportunity to help educate women to be more comfortable with their bodies. If you watched the Getting Real videos Kim and I shot for our blogs, you'll see that we have no problem talking openly about periods. My ultimate goal in supporting U by Kotex was to help other girls realize how much we all have in common and encourage them to open up about their experiences as we did."
Going With the Flow
Elissa Stein, who coauthored the book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation with Susan Kim, is all for candid talk, and she thinks the Kotex campaign is a step in the right direction. She is particularly impressed with the "Reality Check" commercial. "Kotex taking ownership of the messages that they've put out in the past and trying to fix it is fantastic," Stein says, although she notes it was a shame that some networks had an issue with the use of the word vagina.
And while it may seem odd to narrowly target 18- to 24-year-olds with this campaign, Stein sees how that strategy makes sense, pointing out that all of those pamphlets and films we saw on menstruation as students in grammar school were sponsored by the fem-care companies. "They found out if they got a customer early enough, that girl was 80 percent more likely to stay with that brand for the rest of their lives." Stein says. "So now Kotex is doing the same thing."
Like Stein, Holly Buchanan, a marketing-to-women consultant who writes the blog marketingtowomenonline.com, sees a lot of good in the Kotex campaign. Recalling the first time she saw "Reality Check," Buchanan says, "It was laugh-out-loud funny and so dead on. You basically have Kimberly-Clark making fun of their own commercials, and that caught my attention. From there, I went to ubykotex.com, and that's where I was really impressed."
Created by Organic, ubykotex.com is a community-driven, interactive site at which visitors can make their own tampon-ad parody and watch videos ranging from an instructional piece on how to insert a tampon to a humor clip that finds a man asking strangers in the store for help buying tampons and pads for his girlfriend. Visitors can also get answers to questions like, "Do tampons hurt?" and request free samples of U by Kotex products.
"They really get an 'A' on designing a Web site for women," Buchanan says. "[Analyzing Web sites designed for women] is what I've done for many, many years, and I really haven't found anyone else that's been able to really get it right on every aspect from the design to the copy to the use of video to the voice to the fonts."
What really stands out for Buchanan is the site's Real Answers section, which has three people - an expert, a mom and a peer - answering a question from visitors, offering three perspectives. "That was so smart. Men tend to look to experts - the recognized authority or thought leader - for opinions. Women tend to look to what kind of experience has somebody like me had with this? So having a peer, a mom and an expert - having those three different voices and views - was brilliant," Buchanan says.
Is one being hopeful in thinking that the Kotex campaign will inspire other fem-care advertisers still mired in the old way of doing things to create more intelligent campaigns? "I sure hope so," Buchanan says. "It's getting such a great reaction, and the great thing about the whole online component of this campaign is it's measurable, and they can go back and say, 'Hey, we are really connecting,' which they are. Kotex has proof, so I think the other companies certainly should wake up and take notice."
says that she has heard from peers in the advertising industry who say they'd love to be doing this kind of smart, groundbreaking work in the fem-care category. "For me, and I know Sarah [Barclay]
feels the same way, it's just incredible to work on advertising you really believe in," Harris says. "It's not only frickin' great advertising, but it is actually going to make a difference in a
positive way. It's a dream."