Earlier this month, period-proof underwear brand Thinx saw numerous networks reject its first TV ad for showing a tampon string hanging out someone’s underwear. For its chief executive, the rejection clearly symbolized the stigmatization of menstruation; for its chief brand officer, it represented the advertising obstacles femcare brands still have to endure.
Thinx, which makes underwear that can absorb liquid without the need for a towel, is known for making waves in the advertising space.
Its 2015 battle with New York’s MTA sparked a debate over the appropriateness of using the word “period” in out-of-home advertising, as well as the erroneously dubbed “sexual” nature of menstruation imagery.
Its subsequent subway campaign was one of the first to feature transgender and non-binary people in the so-called female hygiene category.
So, Thinx's first national TV ad, which aired earlier this month, is nothing but wry in comparison. The spot imagines a world where everyone has periods – including men – to hilarious effect.
The commercial’s release garnered a fair amount of earned media, receiving praise from women’s lifestyle titles and damnation from the right-wing American Family Association. But the film that appears on Thinx’s social channels is not what can be shown on American networks TV networks.
“The commercial depicts cisgender men going through all the struggles with which the population of people with periods are all too familiar — trying to conceal tampon packages in our hands, fighting with an empty sanitary pad dispenser and, yes, walking through a locker room with a tampon string dangling from our underwear,” wrote the brand’s chief executive, Maria Molland.
“Multiple major networks refused to air the ad unless we replaced the scene with the tampon string.”
In an op-ed published in Time, Molland used the networks' reaction as proof that menstruation is still “treated as shameful and dirty, something better left unacknowledged” in western society.
“Advertising has long not only abided but fueled this negativity,” she said. “Think about all the commercials for tampons and pads featuring blue liquid that looks more like window cleaner than the healthy human blood and tissue it’s supposed to represent.”
Thinx, which briefed BBDO New York to create the ad, originally attemped to get the commercial signed off with a scene depicting period blood staining a bedsheet, too.
However, it soon discovered why so many female hygiene brands are forced to use such blue liquid.
“We quickly found out that all blood was censored, menstrual or not,” said Hilary Fischer Groban, brand director at Thinx. “Given all of this, it's hardly surprising that some networks thought our taboo-smashing commercial was ‘controversial’ – but this is everyday life and we need to be able to talk about that.
“We’re talking boldly about everyday experiences that people with periods know all too well, and we recognize that overcoming these stigmas requires time.”
Not all networks rejected the string scene. Fischer praised BET, BET Her, Bravo, E!, Fuse, MTV, MTV2, Oxygen and VH1, which accepted the commercial minus the blood, and a number of others who “eventually reversed their decision and ran the ad”.
For those that did not, BBDO and Thinx’s creative team were able to “quickly” turn around a revised spot.
Thinx is by no means the first female-orientated brand to come up against advertising censorship on the grounds of being “suggestive”, inappropriate or lewd.
Lisa Topol, chief creative officer at DDB New York, created a series of three honest, humorous spots for Kotex at J Walter Thompson in the early 2010s; all but one network labelled them “offensive” and refused to put them on air.
Meanwhile, sex toy brands such as Unbound and Dame have been fighting a parallel battle with the MTA for their right to advertise female pleasure products on the New York subway.
Change is coming in a number of ways, however.
After making a positive impression on social media, Libresse/Bodyform’s #BloodNormal film, which showed real blood on screen, was eventually given the green light to run on the European TV networks that originally rejected the work. It went on to win numerous awards as a boundry-breaking campaign.
Secondly, advertisers have found a space to air their uncensored work in platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Vimeo. Helpfully, these are places most likely to be inhabited by young girls – the target audience for brands looking to destigmatize periods.
Brands have also started to innovate outside of the traditional media space. Agency Huge recently developed a 'smart' update of the archaic (and often broken) bathroom tampon dispenser, and 'period tech' has finally entered the lexicon several thousand years after women began innovating to cope with their monthly cycle.
Finally, the noise femcare brands are making – and the press generated from their public outrage – is showing no signs of slowing down. Dame is currently suing the MTA for discrimination, while Thinx is refusing to take the networks’ decision this month as a setback.
“We have so many exciting launches lined up for the coming year, and we always use our product advertising as a platform to reflect the reality of periods and menstruation,” she said.
“We’re proud to say we’re never going to back down from showing the real lives of people with periods.”