The making of Elvie’s censored sensation – the urinating billboard
Femtech startup Elvie recently shattered the taboo of incontinence by proclaiming ‘leaks happen’ with a shocking peeing billboard. People gawped and talked about its squatting, pissing weightlifter – following the campaign being censored on social media. Is humor the way to bring these issues into the light, The Drum asks Elvie and its PR agency Don’t Cry Wolf?
Elvie and Don’t Cry Wolf PR challenged themselves to create a ‘peeing’ billboard to raise awareness of female incontinence / Alex Jenkins
Elvie is a provocative brand. It unashamedly owns female health issues, enables public breastfeeding and celebrates urine incidents. In 2019, it piloted a vagina blimp over the Edinburgh Festival after they rejected its ‘P*ssing Booth.’ To win women to its cause, and get them trying its products (currently kegel exercise devices and breast-feeding apparatus), it’s been taking the piss since 2013. And it promises to never stop until we’ve addressed the taboo topics concerning the livelihood of women.
Nothing says mission statement like a lofty 10ft tall billboard celebrating a real-life incontinent woman (and sculpted weightlifter) Megan Burns, a 28-year-old mum of two from Cornwall who came forward after Elvie’s social put a call out for people to front the campaign.
Laura Bevan, PR and communications Lead at Elvie, says: “We wanted Megan to look completely confident and in control of what she’s doing. That’s the reason she’s lifting this tremendously heavy weight. She’s an aspirational figure.”
Elvie brought Don’t Cry Wolf in to normalize incontinence six months ago – anchored on the following insight: “84% of UK women told us that they experienced either mild or minor leaks. Only 7% of them were actually seeking any help.”
Elvie constructed a social campaign on the topic, first to bring it into the spotlight and then position Elvie products as the solution. The discussions were far from seamless. There’s a myriad of rules and sensibilities keeping these conversations from open spaces.
Bevan’s well accustomed to types of censorship.
One’s the social media restrictions that stop users from sharing graphic or explicit content. This is epitomized by the ‘free the nipple’ movement (which Elvie’s been a strong voice in). It’s also present in incontinence, so the campaign hit a wall on TikTok – although it stresses it is in positive discussions with the tech platform to find the line.
Influencer Madi Anne bore the brunt of that ban.
“There is an unspoken taboo that we want to fight. We always want to push the boundaries with our social media. We are not alone in this. Lots of women’s health companies get censored or taken down, specifically around incontinence.”
On this very subject, people also “self-censor,” she explains. No amount of social media rule relaxation will get people talking on the subject without a little bit of help.
Enter the urinating billboard.
How it was made
Sara Collinge, managing director of Don’t Cry Wolf PR, believes that “humor is kryptonite for taboos” – with some caveats.
We need to laugh at the taboos themselves, not poke fun at people with the condition, she claims. “I wondered, how do we raise awareness of the issue and how can we advocate for women? And then how do we use humor to tackle these very serious issues?”
It takes a lot of time, patience and consideration to create a peeing billboard, it turns out.
“It’s is one of the more interesting conversations I’ve ever had with an out-of-home agency [Kinetic] ... I asked, ‘how do we make a billboard wee itself?’ ... and they didn’t immediately know the answer.”
She spoke at length about pee strength, recycling funnels, hole width, water color, stream trajectory and more. The installation, at Commercial Street/Quaker Street, London, relied on a trusty water pump to loudly splash water down the billboard. Weightlifting model Burns was on-site helping the team to pipette more water on to the installation for the official photography.
Bevan admits it was important to have Burns on-site to ensure the experience was authentic to her. Collinge adds: “We spent a lot of time thinking about how this should be visualized. We wanted Megan to be front and center, literally looking you in the eye. And we got the right amount of pee – it would have been ridiculous if it was a flood.”
Meanwhile, Bevan adds: “This billboard is really saying loud and proud if this is you, you’re not alone, but it’s also not something that you just have to live with.”
Elvie is now almost 10 years old. It has helped kickstart a new wave of positivity around female health. The Drum asks if it will ever accomplish its task of breaking all the taboos – and if it’ll ever adjust its marketing accordingly. Bevan’s got a depressing answer.
“We would hope over time taboos will change. It will take the efforts of us and other brands to help change that conversation. But there will always be a new taboo. There is such a long history of women’s health issues being ignored – we’re not going to run out of anything to get angry about or to campaign about anytime soon.”