Bloody good ideas: How innovation is tackling the stigma around periods

Despite half the population having them, periods are still something of a taboo, even in 2015. But a few pioneering women are reinventing the space with honest ad creative and product innovation that benefits women, as Fern Miller, chief strategy and insight officer at DigitasLBi, explains.

This month’s storm in a Mooncup appears to be the story that New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority has not rejected adverts for the Thinx brand of ‘period underwear’.

Thinx has been reportedly outraged at the original suggestion by a representative of Outfront (who sell advertising space on the subway) that the word ‘period’ be dropped from the posters, which would, to be fair, have somewhat put the kibosh on the whole project.

I can’t imagine that a company that makes period underwear would have failed to predict this scenario, especially since the creative rather underlines our squeamishness, with copy reading “we rarely discuss menstruation”. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on the authenticity of the outrage being expressed by Thinx’s founders, but at the very least the reported suggestion of “losing the word period” in early discussions was a red rag to a social media bull.

Nevertheless, the creative, now globally distributed thanks to the outrage machine, does seem to me to be tasteful, even beautiful. The point that it makes about menstruation being a strangely secretive business is well made and somewhat overdue. Making Americans use the word ‘period’ for more than a full stop is undoubtedly a blow for plain English. And I don’t think I’ll be the only one with a small voice in my head saying: ‘Period underwear? What fresh genius is this?’

It comes hot on the heels of October’s news about a Kickstarter project called the ‘Looncup’, a wearable accessory that texts you when it’s time pop to the loo and change it; a brilliant device for washing, drying and carrying sanitary pads called Flo winning Gold in the 2015 International Design Excellence Awards; and the New York Times reporting on the “menstrual innovators” in India creating businesses like organic micro enterprise Couscous (I will say this, the namers of brands like Couscous and Looncup could probably do with some advice regarding how their naming strategy supports or challenges the perceptions of more sustainable sanitary solutions, but anyway).

Innovation thrives when the challenge is important and widely shared, so helping lots of people get through a few rather messy and uncomfortable days with less mess and discomfort has proven to be a useful starting point for good ideas. Not least because, as the smart young women behind Thinx and Flo point out, hiding your period isn’t just about avoiding embarrassment and stains.

In many communities around the world, it’s about being allowed out of the house to attend school, work and be part of your community, not to mention avoiding the urinary infections resulting from the hidden chore of washing and reusing towels. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s outburst about a female detractor (“there was blood coming out of her whatever”) and the ongoing tax on sanitary products has reminded us that we’re not entirely free from stigma in the west.

It’s fair to say that innovation in this category hasn’t been driven by the dominant community of gentlemen in Stem companies. Thanks to their squeamishness about menses, it’s taken a while for period underwear, convenient towel laundering and getting a text from one’s vagina to become a possibility. Apple Health’s pocket geniuses only spotted that women may find the tracking of their menstrual cycle somewhat more useful than say, their selenium intake, for the second release of the platform. One could argue that a very minimal amount of research would have uncovered some of these period pains for the eager innovators and kickstarters amongst our brothers in the industry, but perhaps they didn’t like to ask.

So, hats off and big pants up to the young ladies at Thinx, who have used the remaining taboo around periods to work in their favour in bringing what is inarguably a bloody good idea to our attention. Because it may not be a real surprise to anyone that people don’t much like talking about periods, nor having their privates compared to a pink grapefruit, but creating underwear that is fit for purpose is a very good plan. Period.

Fern Miller is chief strategy and insight officer at DigitasLBi, leading the marketing and tech agency’s strategists, researchers and analysts. She joined in 2011 from Karmarama where she was planning director.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 25 November issue.

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