Why do women’s healthcare ads still have to be ‘taboo-busting’?
In the past month, Canesten and Bodyform have both launched major new campaigns that they promised will bust ‘taboos’ around women’s health. But do brands still have to take it to the extremes to show the reality of womanhood?
Brands such as Canesten and Bodyform are no strangers to tackling taboos / Image via Canesten
Whether it’s depicting thrush, endometriosis or menopausal hot flushes, brands are helping to plug the gaps in public education and debunk the topics that previous generations never wanted to openly talk about.
And it sells too – Bodyform’s ‘Womb Stories’ campaign took home a slew of awards, including several Cannes Lions, after its release in 2021 as the industry praised its depiction of the unseen, unspoken and unknown truths about the physical experiences of women on their periods. It followed it up with a similarly honest portrayal of what women go through at night, with hot flushes and prolonged cramping shown in graphic detail thanks to heat-sensitive cameras.
But in light of the reversal of Roe v Wade, the menstrual brand opted to pull the successor, called ‘Periodsomnia’, from the US until political tension eases.
So as women’s bodily autonomy makes headlines once again, are these boundary-pushing ads still necessary, or is a different approach needed to cut through?
Tess Wicksteed, strategy partner at the design studio Here, has taken a keen interest in femcare. She feels that some brands have lost direction by overly focusing on ‘taboo-busting’ work that for the most part speaks to the wrong audience.
“The younger generations are incredibly enlightened and don’t suffer these issues in the same way,” she says. “And while there might be a mainstream section of people who might still be a bit shocked by certain campaigns, are they the people you want to talk to?”
Her view is that brands have evolved to create bombastic and “gory” campaigns as a way to distance themselves from conservatism and ensure a more inclusive approach to their marketing – extending themselves to the trans and non-binary communities, as well as cis women, “but I think a lot of it is lazy marketing.”
Wicksteed says, instead, she would like to see more taboo-busting campaigns converted into affirming ones. “In my experience, a lot of these topics aren’t necessarily ‘taboo,’ but there is a lack of empathy for women’s experiences.
“There’s a lot of women who need affirming, and you can absolutely do that in a way that doesn’t exclude or dehumanize anyone. You can say something strong without inhibiting flourishing for all.”
Wicksteed would also like to see more brands outside the sector embrace women’s health campaigns in their marketing and normalize the message that would mean work by feminine healthcare brands isn’t seen as ‘taboo.’
It’s an approach Lindsay Garvey-Jones is taking. She’s the national retail manager at Holiday Extras, a service provider handling holiday necessities such as airport transfers and travel insurance. She recently co-founded Travel Talks, raising awareness of perimenopause and menopause within the travel industry.
When women travel, “some will be on HRT, some won’t, but HRT often comes in gel forms that exceed 100ml. Some women will need to bring food to support medication. These are things not only airports need to be aware of, but other companies too.”
She says brands outside of women’s health tackling these sorts of issues would go a long way when it comes to normalizing conversations. “The more we get out there, the better.”
However, for some marketers, the current news agenda goes to show it’s more vital than ever for these campaigns to address stigmas in as bold and provocative a way as needed.
A 2021 study by the Center for Intimacy Justice surveyed 60 health-oriented businesses serving women and people of diverse genders.
It found that they frequently have ads for reproductive health products, breastfeeding groups, incontinence support and sexual wellbeing rejected over objections they contain “adult content.” Some even had their accounts blocked.
Ads for erectile dysfunction and manscaping were allowed, which researchers said was clear evidence of sexism baked into the algorithms.
These algorithms will often block anatomically-correct terms, so some advertisers are forced to find a workaround, such as using emojis or abstract terms – which only served to reinforce the idea on social media that some topics are still taboo
Intimate care brand Luna Daily recently launched a range of products designed for the variety of unspoken ailments women will experience, from dry vaginas to ‘strawberry legs’ and ingrown hairs.
Founder Katy Cottam says that it’s taking an approach to campaigns that is backed by science and data rather than graphic ATL, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still necessary.
“Our research shows us that women and girls aren’t taught enough about their vulva health in schools, so what brands can try and do is use social media as an education platform to encourage us to have conversations,” Cottam concludes.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for women’s health. What’s happening in America is beyond awful, but it’s forced us to shine a light on the issue and, as a result, there’s a focus on women’s health and how we can positively change it.”