Can tampons be cool?

Advertising deconstructed.
Jan. 15 2007 7:14 AM

Can Tampons Be Cool?

Playtex gives feminine care a sporty makeover.

The Spot:We see a tennis player crushing her ground-strokes and serves; a gymnast throwing herself around on the uneven bars; a female swimmer, soccer player, and snowboarder each doing her thing. Meanwhile, animated graphics tout a new "no-slip grip" and "360-degree protection." Says the announcer: "Get high performance when you need it most. … Game time, anytime. New Playtex Sport. May the best protection win."

Video file.; The rise of the interjection 'Awwa'!; Marlon Brando in a scene from Reflections in a Golden Eye.; Brando; marlon brando; Reflections in a Golden Eye; http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid533275934 http://www.brightcove.com/channel.jsp?channel=78144477

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

I am not in the target market for this product. (Rarely am I less in the target market for a product.) But I was intrigued by this ad because it feels like a wholly new approach to selling tampons.

I called up Julie Elkinton, vice president of marketing for feminine care at Playtex, to ask her about the thinking behind this spot. "In the past," she said, "we and competitors have played on the embarrassment factor. The hesitation to engage in activities because of a fear of leakage." This brings to mind the classic tampon sales pitch, which typically includes some or all of the following elements: 1) a high school hallway or classroom; 2) the cutest boy in school; and 3) the ultimate tampon portent—a snow white pair of trousers. (Alternate scenario: group trip to the beach in white bikinis, with cutest boy in school making a cameo appearance.)

There are some shades of old-school fear-mongering still embedded in this Playtex Sport ad. The scenes of female athletes in action include several crotch-centric shots, including a gymnast with legs splayed wildly and a snowboarder in a strained, midair squat. But the point is only partly that these tampons will endure extreme physical contortion.

 "You don't have to be doing sports to appreciate the product," Elkinton says. This is "sport-level protection" (in the hyperbolic phrasing of the ad), so certainly you can trust it when you're walking with Travis to geometry class. But the subtler message here is that these tampons are for girls with a certain type of personality—active, bold, confident. The ladies in the ad are kicking ass. The soundtrack is aggressive and beat-heavy (lyrics: "Step up, let the games begin, don't back down, may the best girl win"). And there are no boys to be seen.

Philosophically, I prefer this newer Playtex message, which is less about preying on fear than about creating an image that's appealing to the consumer, and jibes with the way she thinks about herself. We've seen this shift happen in guys' deodorant ads, which increasingly emphasize slaying the ladies (see: Axe, Old Spice Red Zone) and don't bother with the armpit-stink scare tactics. But tampons seem like a tougher product to brand. Do women really want to make their tampon choice a part of their self-conception?

I looked around at current tampon marketing to see what kinds of imagery are out there. Tampax Pearl incorporates the word upgrade into its ads at every opportunity and seems intent on positioning itself as the posh, high-end tampon for the classier set. Meanwhile, o.b. has a more bohemian, earthy feel, with its boasts about being designed by a female gynecologist. (Tampax, which was the first patented tampon, was invented by a male doctor in Denver in 1929.)

But Playtex Sport appears to be the only brand looking to seize the active, athletic niche. It's like the Gatorade of feminine care. (And frankly, the first time I saw this ad on TV, only half paying attention, I assumed it was for a sports drink. Wait, I thought, is that plastic contraption some kind of sport straw? Ohhhhhhhhh …)

Of course, every brand also touts its superior technology. Elkinton can talk for hours about "tapered applicator barrels" and "a finger grip with flared grooves" and a "unique, double-layer, folded pledget." The other tampons play this game, too. I'm in no position to comment, but my sources assure me these high-tech applicator distinctions are fairly meaningless. In fact, one brand, o.b., has bowed out of the applicator race altogether, instead making its lack of an applicator its central selling point: "You control where it goes and place it where it fits just right for you."

Whatever floats your boat. Or puts it in dry dock? OK, I'll just stop.

Grade: B+. Elkinton says the target demographic for Playtex Sport is ages 13 to 24. It's important to reach younger tampon buyers because their brand preferences can lock in early and never change. Also, according to this abstract of a report on the feminine care industry, the market trends clearly favor pitching to teens. Baby Boomers are pushing the population bulge toward menopause, and birth-control users will increasingly opt for pills that suppress menstruation to a large extent. (For historical context, and some great vintage tampon ads, check out the online Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health.)