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Feminism for Sale: 'Femvertising' in the Menstrual Product Industry

July 9, 2020 | Written by Madi Hanaka (She/Her) 

Since the first wave of feminism began in the 19th century, the topic of gender equality has become much more prominent in mainstream culture. With each new victory the movement brings, conversations about feminist issues become less taboo. These topics have become normalized to the point that we see an abundance of product advertising with explicit themes of social activism. These feminist-themed ads – commonly known as “femvertising” – link product consumption to social causes for corporate profit, persuading consumers to buy certain products, under the pretext of consumption serving as an entry ticket to the relevant social movement.

One specific sector that has adopted this marketing strategy is the menstrual product industry. Menstrual hygiene companies use themes of female empowerment and “girl power” in their advertising campaigns, implying that upon purchasing their products, you will promote – and be associated with – the feminist movement and its associated ethical status. However, if these advertisements are made specifically to generate corporate profit, is it still reasonable to consider it social activism?

Female empowerment in menstrual hygiene advertisements is most often represented by one type of woman: the athlete. For decades, tampon commercials have been pushing the message that displaying athleticism – while menstruating – is the ultimate example of girl power.

This 1963 Tampax advertisement is an early example of this marketing technique. The tagline, “The Champ in every way” clearly intends to speak to the effectiveness of their products, implying their superiority relative to competing brands. However, this tagline suggests more than just the product’s performance; partnered with the imagery of a woman dressed in boxing gloves, this ad also links the product itself to athleticism. Through the combined imagery and language in this ad, Tampax asserts that women should be able to participate in traditionally male-dominant activities, and that purchasing this product is a signal of alignment with feminist ideals.

“The Champ in every way” was only the beginning for sports-related menstrual hygiene advertisements. Over the years, this narrative has increased in popularity. The Playtex ad below takes a more obvious approach in rejecting traditional “feminine” roles. With female athletes as the face of this campaign, the ad suggests their empowerment stems from their athletic ability. The intended message in the wording of this ad is no more subtle than the image. The very phrase “Gold Medals Beat Glass Slippers” blatantly suggests that feminine characteristics and physical strength are mutually exclusive - in order to be a winner, you must avoid displaying feminine qualities at all.

Even campaigns that aren’t sports-related use femvertising to attract potential customers. This advertisement for Tampax Radiant claims that the product provides great protection and comes with discreet packaging so that your period can be completely invisible. By keeping your period a secret – and consequently reinforcing menstruation stigma – Tampax promises that consumers will be able to spend more time being radiantly themselves. While their phrase “how you choose to stand out is up to you” may be considered empowering, the intended message is clouded by the underlying shame this ad enables about menstruation in general.

Although many menstrual hygiene companies have proven to be problematic in terms of their advertising techniques, there are some brands that have more effective ways of displaying empowerment. These Thinx ads are great examples of what menstrual product advertising looks like without commodifying feminism. In all of these advertisements, Thinx takes a straightforward “no BS” approach, stating what the product is and what it promises the consumer. Most importantly, these ads do not denounce femininity and, rather than shaming consumers into buying their products in order to hide their periods, Thinx advocates for the de-stigmatization of menstruation. Their tagline: “(better) Underwear for Women (or any menstruating human) with periods (shedding of the uterine lining)”, is not only inclusive, but also explains and normalizes a natural bodily function!

While at first glance it may seem that menstrual hygiene advertisements with feminist-based messaging are empowering, it is also true that, for many companies, allying with the feminist movement is a calculated decision. Rather than vilifying femininity and menstruation in general, menstrual hygiene companies need to embrace and appreciate the experiences of their consumers to have a positive impact. In order to truly support female empowerment, companies must urge their consumers to be feminists through their actions rather than their consumption, and stand behind the feminist movement regardless of expectations of financial gain.

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