Advertising is paramount in shaping our cultural existence, with period product advertising being a fundamental vehicle for conveying the image of menstruation. So, shouldn’t ads authentically represent and mediate all those who menstruate within this discussion? The answer is yes. But the execution of this, historically, has not been there; it wasn‘t until 1985 that the word ‘period‘ was first used in TV advertising. Using the art of semiotic analysis (thank you Marc for the masterclass), let’s take a quick dive into period product advertising.
Kicking off with the Blue Stuff.
Have you ever noticed the blue-window-cleaner-like liquid in period product advertising? Do you bleed blue?! Well, if bleeding blue is normal to you, you need to see a doctor babes. Collectively, we are accustomed to the portrayal of period blood in advertising as that blue slush puppy stuff, raising the question of… What does this say about our current culture? The sanitisation of menstruation (an utterly natural bodily function), through the use of blue liquid, censors reality, and exemplifies to viewers that their natural bodies are unsuitable for public viewing; negatively affecting self-esteem and contributing to our harmful culture of taboo. Despite advertising’s history of depicting period blood as a weird science experiment on a sanitary pad, this is changing. Revolutionary campaigns such as AMV BBDO’s Blood Normal (2017) and Womb Stories (2020), illuminate a transition from themes of shame and suppression, to liberalisation and empowerment, with Blood Normal being the first ad in the UK to depict real menstrual blood, which to me is quite baffling, as this occurred as little as 5 years ago.
The Colour White.
In coordination with the underlying meaning of blue liquid, using my semiotic lens, the theme of taboo is further emphasised through the motif of the colour white (see snazzy graphic below), most notably in the clothes of models, combined with frequent references to “freshness” and “odour”. “White” has connotations of innocence, purity, virginity, perfection and cleanliness. Whilst the use of white clothing highlights the trust and security models placed in the products advertised, it also illustrates that menstruation is impure and instead, those menstruating should remain pristine and untouched. With a focus on freshness, deodorising and sanitising, the intrinsic message is that periods, and by extension, those who have them are dirty and smelly, which is a harmful message to receive growing up. Bodyform revealed that 52% of girls would rather get bullied at school than discuss periods with their parents; a further 87% stated they have gone to great lengths to conceal their periods, raising the question of the extent to which unrepresentative advertising has contributed to the stigma.
Visual Content and Semiotic Analysis – Theme of Taboo
Who are these mythical creatures wearing white shorts and bikinis and being euphoric and active while on their periods? Please just let me hoover up a pack of magic stars whilst crying and watching Monsters Inc in peace, thank you. Growing up, I remember the people in these adverts not only being practically flawless, but also being incredibly sporty, and doing activities that are very relatable to viewers, like horse-riding or skydiving? Whilst the message of “you can do anything on your period” may be empowering, it is actually quite the opposite and makes viewers, especially those who experience severe pain or suffer from endometriosis, feel even more crap and inadequate. The recurring themes of energy and sport, emphasise a transparent disconnection between the reality of menstruation and the idealised depictions in advertising.
Ultimately, periods are normal, showing them should be too.
Words Used to Describe Advertising’s Depiction of Menstruation VS The Reality of Menstruating, Followed by the Ads that Represent This.
Advertisements I Looked At:
- Always (1997). Always Ultra Advert
- Always (2001). Always Night Pads Advert
- Always (2015). Always Ultra Advert
- Always (2021). Always Pippa Advert
- Always (2022). Always: #RethinkYourReaction
- Bodyform (1990). Bodyform For You Advert
- Bodyform (1993). Bodyform Invisible Ultra Advert
- Bodyform (2009). Bodyform Liners Advert
- Bodyform (2020). Bodyform: #wombstories Advert
- Bodyform (2021). Bodyform Dailies: Freshness Protection Liners Advert
- Tampax (1992). Tampax Compak Advert
- Tampax (1993). Tampax ‘A Natural Fit’ Advert
- Tampax (1995). Tampax Tampets Advert
- Tampax (2009). Tampax Pearl ‘Outsmart Mother Nature’ Advert
- Tampax (2015). Tampax Compak Pearl ‘So quick. So Easy. Dive into Life’ Advert