All of you — or in any case, approximately half of you — are well aware of the general format that menstrual product advertising takes. They generally feature ecstatic ladies playing sports in their favorite white pants, without a cramp, acne flare up or PMS-induced scowl in sight. The overall message is that with their product, no one, especially men, will be aware of your secret shame. While tip-toeing around female menstruation is certainly at the milder end of the sexist advertising scale compared to the blatant ‘babevertizing’ tactics that many consumer product firms embrace, ads for feminine hygiene products that use infantilizing euphemisms or distracting and unrelated imagery reinforce the idea of periods being gross and shameful. It’s definitely time for a shake up.
The way tampons and pads are sold is so codified that THINX has drawn attention by going against the grain. The resulting ads have an elegant appeal, but their frankness and use of suggestive imagery nearly got them shelved.
Outfront Media, the NYC Subway’s advertising services contractor, put up strong resistance to distributing the ads; THINX’s Director of Marketing Veronica del Rosario cites “fluid” and “period” as the problematic elements of the ads’ copy and tells Bustle that the director was wary of using images of fruit and eggs that imply reproductive organs. Their hesitance and nitpicking concerning the display of ads for product designed for women’s’ bodies, while freely publishing images of scantily clad women’s bodies to sell pretty much anything else with a barcode, didn’t go unnoticed.
According to Democratic Underground, this may have been down to Outfront’s non-inclusive company culture — the company has only two female leaders and no female sales reps. Additionally, when THINX CEO Miki Agrawal called out their hypocrisy, she was told not to make it a “women’s issue.” However, after no small amount of media and internet controversy, the ads are finally live and getting attention.
The thinx subway campaign speaks to me deeply. Good job
— meow (@EmileeLindner) March 6, 2016
The ads play into common experience. They don’t shy away from the fact that periods can be smelly, uncomfortable, and just plain gross, as their cheeky copy skewers the typical, squeamish reactions to menstrual products, like “No, they don’t feel like diapers…” Additionally, rather than hiding their ads away in strictly female targeted media, they are proudly displayed to 4.3 million people of all genders who ride the subway daily.
Breaking The Format
Perhaps it’s a measure of how society has progressed that this taboo topic has become the arena where consumers speak out the loudest against disingenuous advertising. In 2012, Femfresh brought out a campaign based around using euphemisms for the vagina: which earned a gleeful slating on social media. This riotous backlash showed that advertisers, more than ever, need to be keenly aware of their market. The fourth wave feminist movement is closely interconnected through social media and “calling out” unacceptable language, and behavior is considered an integral part of activism: advertisers who rely on lazy stereotypes and oppressive frameworks to sell their product can expect to be reprimanded.
Because THINX advertising breaks the mold on how we expect tampons and pads to be sold, they are unignorable. And by backing up this initial shock value with memorable imagery and Tumblr-ready language, they have cemented their image in the audience’s minds.
The refreshingly blunt and honest nature of these ads means that they don’t just read as ads plugging a product, but as a comment on the format of ads themselves. The models posed in the ads don’t look particularly out of place beside other weirdly contorted images, until they are put in context and it becomes clear that the woman in the fetal position is a ‘real’ representation of how a woman feels during her period. Even though the women are wearing only underwear and a shirt, their attitude doesn’t come across as sexual. Their pantslessness is more reminiscent of lazy weekend mornings, as well practically showing what the underwear looks like in action.
Changing The Way We Look At Women
The way women are presented in ads has been a feminist focus for decades, and it’s great to see companies like THINX embracing the bolder and more inclusive route of frankness and authenticity when making advertorial decisions. Tangentially, a more recent discussion topic for feminists is how women present themselves through social media. One could argue that social media is the platform that allows for the highest level of authenticity as the depictions are self-made, rather than passing through several layers of editorialism at an advertising house. However, as social media increasingly becomes a primary mode of expression for individuals all over the world, the tendency to editorialize has begun to take hold. Could it be that just as female advertising is moving towards a more genuine and honest tone, social media is going the opposite way?
In the social media realm, #NoMakeUp and #NoFilter became popular hashtags as they purported to “show true beauty” and to ostensibly debunk the notion that one needs makeup to be attractive. The hashtag-driven movement was successful in that it initially brought a new level of ‘realness’ to Instagram, and emphasized the beauty of a woman unadorned. Yet a quick Google search reveals over 24 million results for tutorials on how to achieve the perfect ‘no makeup’ look.
So which is it? Does Instagram empower young women to take charge of how they are depicted, wrestling the monopoly away from a media that does no favors to women and people of color, or does it force them to spend even more of their time and energy perfecting their appearance?
This dichotomy, getting made up to look unmade up, epitomizes the emerging Instagram trend that we’ve cleverly named metagrams. Metagrams are posts that poke fun at or call attention to the decidedly un-candid process that some instagrammers go through to capture their beautifully lit, perfectly arranged, optimally focused, “candid” shots.
For example, celebrity Instagram profiles exist to make fans feel as though they have a window into their idols’ lives, but as Celeste Barber underscores with her hilarious parody, their images are actually staged to within an inch of their lives and bear very little resemblance to reality:
Have you ever personally fallen gracefully into a pool sideways with your robe still on and a zen-like expression on your face while someone just happens to capture it in perfect black and white? No? Just Yoncé? Ok then, moving on…
But it’s not just celebs posting these kinds of images — we’ve all seen people standing still in public taking shot after shot (or roping in their other halves). What they’re depicting isn’t real life, it’s a very stylised image of an ideal. These parodies underscore the artifice of these images, serving as a reminder of the gulf between appearance and reality.
At a basic level, metagrams call attention to the photographer and her process, which disrupts our connection to the object of the photograph and reminds us that we’re looking through another’s editorial lens.
On a more complex level, metagrams expose the artificiality of the ‘gram in question, which interestingly results in the metagram itself seeming more real than the original post it’s critiquing. Just as the THINX campaign approaches period underwear adverts with frankness and a tinge of humor to connect with its target consumer, metagrams approach the act of instagramming with the same clever, self-deprecating honesty that leaves the viewer feeling like they’re “in on the joke.” Both THINX and metagrams acknowledge the limitations and scope of their space, and they use this to their advantage by deliberately calling attention to and experimenting with the boundaries that they’ve been set. Just like “breaking the fourth wall” is used in cinema, both THINX and metagrams break through to their audience by acknowledging their existence in a non-conventional way.
With the THINX campaign and instagram culture, women are taking control of the way that they are depicted, creating a dissenting voice which refutes the idea, presented in mass media images, of women as passive objects. However, the way we present ourselves in social media is not quite the whole truth, either, and not without problems of its own. In the future, how will we show ourselves to the world, and what impact will this have on society at large?
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