Perspective: The Lady Problem

Half a century of social progress after tampons came to market, they're still treated with squeamishness

For the sake of the 99.9 percent of the public not up on their menstruation-products marketing history, the first tampon ad appeared in the early 1930s. The brand’s name was Fax, and apart from featuring a drawing of a woman in a bathing suit, the 29-cent product’s ad copy proclaimed “A NEW freedom, comfort, convenience”—but dared go no further.

And little wonder why. Feminine-hygiene brands joined products like hemorrhoid creams and enemas in a class of products most people did not wish to discuss. But marketers of tampons during much of the 20th century faced bigger problems. There was the difficulty of producing ad copy and imagery that magazine publishers would accept. (The postwar standard of obscenity was anything with a “tendency to . . . corrupt its readers by inciting lascivious thoughts”—a highly elastic definition.) Another problem came from clerics who maintained that tampon use was the equivalent of sexual intercourse. As recently as 1990, a Tampax ad included the assurance: “You can use them at any age and still be a virgin.”

So imagine the handcuffs on Tampax’s creative team when the ad at right appeared in the June 18, 1963 issue of Look magazine. With frank talk about the mechanics of tampons off limits (“worn internally” is as far as the copywriter would go), Tampax instead used language and symbols that evoked women’s unspoken awareness of the topic while simultaneously defining the brand’s efficacy. Hence, the white dress and the swimming pool. Given that light-colored clothing and athletic activity were all but unthinkable for pad users, Tampax could get its message across with a minimum of verbiage and photos tame enough for a Sears catalog.

“Women were so conscious of these problems that it didn’t take much to make them think about them,” said Harry Finley, creator and curator of the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health. “If a woman used a pad [for these scenes], you’d have blood in the pool and this bulky thing between their legs.” As such, the 1963 ad works—mercifully—on the basis of suggestion alone. It plays off what a female consumer would dread to see, but doesn’t.

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in 1963 too, helping to usher in an era in which topics like the menstrual cycle shook off the taboo label. Did tampon advertising follow? Well, yes and no. “Kotex Natural Tip tampons slip into place with neat little sticks,” a 1974 ad fearlessly boasted. In the80s, one TV spot featured a young Courteney Cox announcing: “Let me tell it to you straight—Tampax can change the way you feel about your period.” And recent U by Kotex spots poke fun at the staid conventions. But while the 2011 ad, opposite, makes strides by aiming for a younger demo (let’s not forget the virtue police) and stars a woman of color, it’s curiously reluctant to state the obvious. It’s also employing the same symbology Tampax used 53 years earlier. “The woman is still wearing a light color,” said Finley, “and the ad is still emphasizing sports—a common advertising feature since the early days.”

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