Do we say periods aloud or are we still using different words like - Mushkil Din, Moon cycle, etc to shy away from talking about menstruation? While periods are still a “Taboo” subject in many parts of the country, conversations have started being normalised.
On May 28, the world will celebrate the joy of being a woman with World Menstrual Hygiene Day, but do we really showcase this joy or is it layered under much jargon? The advertising of brands in the menstrual hygiene segment has come a long way right from not mentioning the word ‘Period’ to showing the colour red, trying to show the real colour of period blood, making #bloodnormal.
According to Menstrual Hygiene brand Whisper and UNESCO data from 2021, 23 million girls drop out of school due to the lack of menstrual hygiene and awareness. The reports also state that out of a total of 40 crore menstruating women in India, less than 20% use sanitary pads. In urban areas, this number only goes up to 52%. This indicates that nearly half of even urban-based women use unhygienic methods for period protection, making them vulnerable to health issues.
A look at the above advertisement from the year 1986 is proof of how far we’ve come as an audience, as well as an advertiser, to talking about menstruation and normalising it among our peers.
Whisper was the first brand to show a sanitary napkin on television with Renuka Sahane, the star of the long-running TV series ‘Surabhi’ in 1993 and mention the word "periods" in advertising.
“When Whisper wanted to advertise in prime time, TV channels thought a sanitary pad was an inappropriate product to advertise in a prime-time slot. We got special permission from the authorities and became the very first sanitary pad brand to advertise on prime time on Indian TV in the early 90s,” said Akhil Meshram - Senior Director, Category Leader Feminine Care, Indian Subcontinent at Procter & Gamble.
Sharing his thoughts on the evolution of conversations around menstruation in the country, Meshram commented, “Having been in the market since 1989, Whisper has seen the category evolve and mature through time. The conversations that we witness on periods, that appear so obvious and upfront today, were a huge challenge not so long ago. This change has taken shape because of the wide-ranging efforts behind normalising periods.”
A 2011 ad spoke about the issue:
In 2014, Whisper busted the taboo around ‘touching the pickle’ during menstruation through a landmark ad. Whisper became the first brand in India in 2014 to take the topic of period taboos head-on in the globally renowned Whisper ‘Touch the Pickle’ campaign. The campaign went on to win several global awards including Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions.
Touch the pickle campaign:
With the advancement of technology and the spread of social media across the globe, and in India specifically, where it takes time for people to adjust to a certain idea, people have started to talk and acknowledge the fact that menstruation is common.
Anika Wadhera, Head of Marketing and brand communications at Sirona Hygiene, said, “Social media, traditional media and movies have been shedding more light to spark these conversations. For instance, #Menstruation has 689k posts on it on Instagram- and this is just one of the many metrics to measure the number of period conversations going on. However, the scale at which this change is happening is still slow and impacts only certain strata of society. We still have a long way to go. Understandably so, bringing about a change in society and the way people think is a gradual process. We hope to reach a time when there is no longer any shame in talking about periods - no matter the age, gender or financial status.”
According to the reports, about 15 million girls enter the menarche cycle every year in India, yet more than 70% of them have no knowledge of menstruation before their periods. When they turn to their mothers for information, a lot of them are shushed. The research reports also state that 70%+ mothers in India think periods are dirty. Brands have been bridging the gap by going to different parts of the country and making students aware of menstruation.
Not just mothers, the brands in this category also started bringing in the fathers in the conversations around periods. Fathers somehow are never a part of this crucial conversation with their daughters. And when this key parenting partner is absent at such an important juncture, the subliminal message to the daughter is that this is a taboo topic, only to be had with certain people, thereby affecting her confidence.
To encourage this shift, Stayfree launched a campaign which urges fathers to be involved in period conversations with their daughters. This campaign brought to light the discomfort fathers feel in talking about menstrual periods with their daughters.
It’s just a period ad:
Stayfree released another film in 2020, which aimed to remove the stigma around periods:
While the category of sanitary products for women was largely being dominated by brands like Whisper and Stayfree, new-age brands like Paree, Nua, Rio pads and others entered the market in the last few years and are trying to further break the stigma and create awareness by being rebellious about their stances through progressive ads.
For example, in 2020, Rio challenged the misleading practice of showing water or blue colour instead of red for period blood in ads.
Kartik Johari, VP-Marketing & Commerce, Nobel Hygiene (Rio Pads), said, “Media images shape audience imagination. If I show women whispering about pads, hiding pads in black bags, and moving trucks while on their period, that is the perception I create. Anyone with an experience different from that feels unheard, or abnormal. Progressive ads thus go a long way in helping women accept body issues, mood swings and that period are really not a god's gift, they are a biological process that can really really be a pain, and if they are too much of a pain - then there may be something very wrong and one needs a medical check-up.
He further said, “Also, it is important to know that since there is practically no education in school about periods, and not too many educational PSAs, a young girl or woman's knowledge of periods comes mainly from pop culture of which ads form a huge portion. For example, were you told about menopause by your school teacher? Or your mother? No. How will you learn then? Through research, your own experiences, and of course through brands!”
Similarly, Samta Datta, General Manager - Marketing, Soothe Healthcare (Paree Sanitary), said, “With the advent of young Indian brands entering the category, like ourselves, the category, the product offering, and commination compass have shifted dramatically. While global giants continue to dominate with the media muscle, the challenger brands are adding much-needed stimulation to the communication narrative.”
Beenu Kurup, Sr Vice-President, Ogilvy India, said that while the level of communication has definitely improved in the past 30 years, a more progressive narrative that appeals to the young crowd needs to be adopted now.
“In the past 30 years, communication has evolved from calling periods, “un dino wali baat” and showing blue liquid, to cue product absorbency, to now being ‘brave’ enough to talk about how a menstruator feels during her periods and even going so far as to show red blood in ads. This change has been long overdue – we are overloaded with information and education. When we speak with young girls, they have ambitions and dreams that far surpass letting periods come in their way. And even when societal stigmas try to trap them, they talk about bending the rules to suit their aspirations instead of rebelling against culture. This is today’s smart audience who plays it smart to get ahead in life,” Kurup said.
“While mass period protection communication is trying to catch up, it now needs to have a progressive narrative that appeals to GenZ, which is more than just the width and depth of a pad,” she added.
Citing the example of Kotex campaign, for the brand which relaunched in the Indian market recently, Kurup said that it is in the interest of the brand to speak to audiences in a more meaningful way.
“Periods don’t hold women back, perceptions do. And we have brought this platform thought to life in the recent India relaunch of Kotex. As a brand it stands to ensure that periods never get in the way of any woman’s progress. And aims to support and encourage young girls and women on their path to establish a new world order and break the cycle of the old world,” she said.
“To stay salient, it is in the interest of brands; both mass, and niche, to speak to audiences in a meaningful way with products that offer differentiated period protection. They need to be the voice of our audiences to challenge regressive mindsets and offer a progressive narrative.”
On the other hand, Leo Burnett India, which has been serving Whisper for the past several years, and has worked extensively to eradicate the stigma through various campaigns for the brand, believes in making a change from the ground level. “Through our latest initiative #TheMissingChapter we designed a chapter that explained the simple biology behind periods, and petitioned the government to include it in school books. The red paper became a powerful symbol of the period of revolution in India, appearing everywhere, from the front page of newspapers and even on prime-time news. We worked with local artists to adapt the chapter in 28 native art styles and diverse languages and put it on school and village walls across the country, so no girl could miss it,” said, Sonal Chhajerh, Executive Creative Director, Leo Burnett India.
While every brand and advertiser in this segment is making an effort to eradicate the stigma around this topic, it still has a long way to go. Seconding this thought, Manisha Sain, Planning Lead, The Womb Communications, said, “At the heart of the matter of normalisation of menstrual hygiene lies the failure of our society to accept the biological reality of a mass-majority in its most authentic manner. We realised how deep-seeded this bias was when one of the reactions to our work on Rio Pads was from a mother of a 7-year-old boy. She wrote to us about how embarrassed she was when her son, after seeing our ad on TV, recreated a red balloon with red liquid trickling out of it. This kind of discomfort on seeing periods truths as is, reveals how much social conditioning has affected each one of us.”
She further added that in this context, any effort across the spectrum, right from mass-appeal work that creates awareness around merits of using sanitary napkins over the cloth, to progressive, edgy work that pushes social boundaries is welcome.
Recently, Nua, the femtech start-up onboarded Wondrlab to design the campaign #GoWithYourFlow for the brand, which challenges the stereotypical representation of happy-go-lucky girls in sanitary ads and portrays a realistic depiction of women's menstrual cycle. One film takes on the cliché of women always smiling during their periods, another; water pouring on pads, a third; women dancing freely and so on.
Advertising plays a very important role in normalising the conversation for the audiences. But have the advertisers evolved as much as the audiences? Amit Akali, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer at Wondrlab, said, “I think nothing is really taboo for audiences these days, all the movies/TV shows are a reflection of that. The advertisers will have to reflect on that as well. Menstruation is becoming a part of normal conversations. The audiences are comfortable with reality, the advertisers are still trying to open up to this reality. There are a lot of opportunities for the advertising industry and brands/advertisers have to evolve to that level.”
The Nua film: