Essity Is Breaking Taboos Around Periods in Its Advertising

Taking risks doesn't come without its fair share of challenges, though

images of a woman in red stained underpants on the left, a cupcake shaped like a vulva in the middle, and a woman on the right in red underpants
Essity addresses taboos surrounding periods head-on in its advertising. Essity
Headshot of Kathryn Lundstrom

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Everyone’s familiar with the classic format for a pad or tampon commercial: smiling women clad head-to-toe in white, flying across the screen in bursts of femininity and energy, not slowed down one bit by that pesky menstrual cycle, the color red avoided at all costs.

In the last few years, however, brands have worked to create a more honest portrayal of what it’s like to have a period. That work has won awards, gone viral and proven that breaking taboos in advertising to women is not only good for society but of strategic importance for brands that operate in this space.

The feminine care category has an “even greater responsibility” than most to treat women respectfully, especially in the face of a stigma “that it’s contributed to for decades,” said AMV BBDO executive creative director Nadja Lossgott.

Kotex recently celebrated its 100th anniversary by releasing its “She Can” campaign by honoring the women who helped initially found the company: nurses. During the novel coronavirus pandemic, Kotex’s spot notes, women are most affected by the economic downturn, despite 75% of women taking on the role of caretaker at this time.

Sweden-based women’s hygiene brand Essity’s next campaign was meant to be released in April, but the launch was postponed until July because of the pandemic.

While they’re not sharing many details, deputy executive creative directors at AMV BBDO Toby Allen and Jim Hilson told Adweek that the new campaign will continue to break taboos and challenge stigmas while putting an “empathetic spotlight on the unseen and unspoken experiences of women.” Essity recruited award-winning Canadian-American director Nisha Ganatra to direct the spot.

a woman in red stained underpants on the left, a vulva, a new logo shaped like a v on the right
Essity's new logo is inspired by women's "V-zone."

However, Essity did recently change its brand logos from an outdated, traditionally feminine ribbon to a V-shape that symbolizes a woman’s “V-zone,” which the brand defines as the vulva, vagina and V-shaped intimate area.

“There is still so much more to do and undo in this category,” said Lossgott. “Women already face so many pressures, advertising shouldn’t be relying on pressuring women even more to be aspirational. Women should just be allowed to be themselves; their whole selves, without ludicrous misrepresentations that are ridiculous at best but toxic at their worst.”

Going to war against period taboos

Essity’s U.K.-based brand Bodyform debuted its first taboo-shattering campaign in 2012: a video apology explaining “the truth” about menstruation to a man who didn’t understand the reality of his girlfriend’s cycle. It was a bit grimmer, Bodyform explained, than the dreamy experience that brands typically portrayed.

Through research, “we saw how big taboos are and how much they impact women,” said Essity’s marketing and communications director for feminine care, Tanja Grubner. “Those same taboos were everywhere, across every market.”

a woman with unshaved underarms, text at the bottom

It set the stage for its most groundbreaking campaigns from AMV BBDO in London, first with “Red. Fit.” in 2016, focused on women in sports, and then with “#BloodNormal” in 2017, which depicted regular people’s experiences while on their periods. There’s a man buying tampons, blood running down a person’s leg in the shower and girls wincing from the pain of menstrual cramps. That spot won a Cannes Glass Lion in 2018.

“#BloodNormal acted as a big red bomb that splashed into culture,” said Lossgott. “The misrepresentation of periods made palatable for the male gaze had left women feeling disgusting, while men had been trained to feel disgusted by periods.”

It brought the taboos that Essity had identified to the forefront of the conversation. Television broadcasters initially refused to run it. In Australia, it became the most complained about ad to ever air. The response to that campaign made it clear that the taboos didn’t stop at periods but encompassed the entirety of the female body.

“It’s like everything about women’s vaginas and periods was taboo and cultural dynamite,” said AMV BBDO strategy director Margaux Revol.

So after “#BloodNormal,” the brand broadened its message. Enter “Viva la Vulva,” a bright, joyful ode to the female body in all its complex reality, complete with every shape, color and size of vulva singing to the tune of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You.”

This campaign “acted as a grenade,” said Revol. “A vulva-shaped grenade thrown into culture, awakening everyone to something they had never seen before: wonderful, singing vulvas.”

Is a beautiful, buzz-worthy campaign enough?

While brilliantly conceived and a joy to watch, neither “Viva la Vulva” nor “#BloodNormal” connect specifically to Essity’s products, which can be a weakness, according to Christie Nordhielm, marketing professor at Georgetown University.

While the ads are “breakthrough and cutting-edge,” said Nordhielm, the hard part is to “keep it going in the long run.” Without a compelling connection to either the efficacy of the product or brand purpose, she said, the ads won’t necessarily convince viewers to change their buying habits.

The same is true for the buzz and backlash that the ads received from TV networks and online critics.

“Polarization is a wonderful thing,” said Nordhielm, but if it’s not tied to a brand-specific message, other marketers can easily co-opt the message.

And there has arguably already been some of that. While Essity is only now breaking into a few states in the U.S. market, several stateside direct-to-consumer brands selling period products or similarly women-focused brands have built campaigns around the same sense of pride and authenticity that course through “#BloodNormal” and “Viva la Vulva.”

Earlier this year, Kimberly Clark-owned Kotex followed Essity’s lead and switched from blue to red liquid in digital ads demonstrating pad absorbency. It’s a bigger deal for major brands like Kimberly Clark, Procter & Gamble or Essity to take those risks, said Alixandra Barasch, associate marketing professor at New York University Stern School of Business.

The feminine care market is “dominated by big players” that are “less comfortable with risk in general,” said Barasch. They’ve just got more to lose than a young DTC brand, which is also part of why it took until 2012 for the tides to begin to turn.

@klundster Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.