How sanitary products advertising is moving beyond the traditional subtext — with wit, colour and innovative packaging
A canvas case with red polka dots arrived at work a few weeks ago. Though deceptively innocuous, its contents blew away our Monday blues — 10 pads with witty lines that echoed what most of us have thought of at least once during that time of the month. ‘It’s just blood. Period,’ said one, ‘Basic Biology. Period’ said another. My favourite: ‘Deal with my mood swings. Period.’ Needless to say, all 10 quickly found owners, and also started a dialogue.
This, I soon fiound out, is exactly what the co-founders of ‘Don’t Hide it. Period.’ — Neha Tulsian of NH1 Design, a branding and design consultancy in Gurugram, and Pallavi Mohan, a fashion designer — had in mind. “We designed a packaging system that allows women to embrace periods and break the ice between their uterus and society. We feel the first point of that communication should be the packaging,” explains Tulsian. “We interact with the sanitary pad every month. It lives with us, hidden in our bathroom drawers. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if it can engage us and encourage us to open up and talk about periods?” she asks
news ads of course, such design interventions have been making news in the West for a while now. In 2015, New Yor
k-based sanitary products company Thinx promoted their underwear line, built to absorb blood, with ads that featured a half-peeled grapefruit as a metaphor for a vagina and a dripping egg. Fast forward a year, UK-based company Bodyform pulled off the nearly-impossible feat of showcasing blood in its commercial. Their ad, depicting athletes bleeding during the course of playing their sport, went viral. Last year, they went a step further by actu
ally showing a sanitary napkin with red ink (instead of the customary blue) and a woman in the shower with blood running down her thighs.
These ads went viral in India too, a market that is notoriously tight-lipped about the female body. But that might be changing. “For the longest time, we resisted saying the word ‘period’,” says Bindu Sethi, Chief Strategy Officer of JWT. “There is a shift in conversation now. But a lot of ground needs to be covered, and [that can happen] only when we start talking in everyday language,” she says. Here are three ways product designers and ad executives are getting the message out:
esign and packaging
Over a decade before Don’t Hide It. Period introduced their innovative design, Kimberly-Clark’s Kotex launched a line of pads and tampons — packaged in red and white, to let the masses know that women do not bleed blue. It was part of its Red Dot campaign. However, until recently, such initiatives have been rare. “Currently, women are becoming more comfortable with the idea of owning their periods and everything that comes with it,” says Anushka Sani, of design company Thought Over Design, explaining the shift in attitudes. “If they want to go to work, they do it. If they want a hot water bottle and rest, they do that too. They’re more vocal and I think the
designs reflect this.”
For Japanese company Unicharm’s Sofy range of products, JWT subtly changed the packaging, to depict women ‘doing things’, like running or skateboarding. “When women ha
ve their periods, they are always told, don’t do this, don’t do that. We wanted to change that,” says Sethi.
Many of the design re-jigs have also adopted a minimalist approach. Like Boondh. The menstrual cup startup’s logo is a simple droplet, with a dot below it. Recently, they replaced the brightly-coloured boxes the cups came in with a simple off-white cotton pouch sporting the logo.
“The designs are becoming less diagrammatic and more human,” explains Mira Malhotra, of design company Studio Kohl. “The typography and colours used are clean and to the point. The messag
e is not that we’re emotional and overly feminine, but that it’s something that happens every month, so we might as well be honest about it.”
2. Wit and satire
A few years ago, Kotex ran a campaign, So Obnoxious — a satirical take on generic sanitary product ads. Lines like “I’m in this tampon commercial because market research shows girls like you love girls like me” ensured it had recall value. Humour gets the message across because it normalises that which is supposed to be taboo, says Sonal Dabral, Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy. “Advertisements for sanitary products need authenticity. The more we use language and design that promote the secrecy of ‘those four days’, the more we reinforce it. But secrecy is not what the younger generation wants; they want openness and straight-talk,” he says.
ur also breaks the ice. “If it is well-placed and relevant, it is always received well,” says Arun Iyer, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer, Lowe Lintas. “But timing is important. You’ve got to pitch it perfectly.” That was something HelloFlo understood when they ran an ad for their period starter kit — with a young girl faking her period with glitter nail polish and a mother throwing her a ‘moon party’ to embarrass her into admitting it. In the end, hilariously, a grandpa with an upended ketchup bottle says, “You’ve just got to wait for it.”
3. Breaking stereotypes
“The language around sanitary napkins is constructed such that it doesn’t offend the male viewer. For the longest time, these products were in the hands of men, so the ads looked like how they wanted women to look like, not how women actually were,” explains Sethi. And one of the main reasons women are taking back the conversation is social media.
Online spaces have helped spread the word of stereotype-bucking campaigns like Sofy’s #ImNotDown and Whisper’s #TouchThePickle. “Across categories, ads have moved from being purely product or brand-based to ones with purpose,” says Dabral. “The times are such that the younger audience is asking questions about traditions and taboos. When a brand talks their language, it makes an instant connection.”
Meanwhile, a small but determined group of independent designers and artistes are also carving out spaces online to discuss menstruation. Poet Rupi Kaur waged a virtual war with Instagram in 2015 after the photo sharing site removed, twice, a picture of her bleeding. Raghavi C, of design company Punchmittai, recently created The Cosmic Kanmani, an illustrated series on body image and femininity, which includes one of a woman with a loudspeaker sprawled on a bloody pad. Titled ‘Kaththu’ (shout), she says it reflects her belief that “if we are going to make a point about something, we should shout”.
After all, according to Tulsian, the power of design “is not only to draw attention to, but also to help enact positive change in response to social issues”. And, as Sani concludes, “This is an exciting time for feminine products because the world is moving beyond butterflies and pastel colours. Brands in this space are looking to showcase the bold, independent side of women, and that’s definitely a good thing.”
The sale of Don’t Hide it. Period.(available on Nykaa.com, ₹285) is raising funds for The Better India & Akaar Foundation, to build a low-cost, bio-degradable sanitary pad factory in Ajmer.