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|Written by Alexandra Lawless|
|Thursday, 06 May 2010 00:00|
Kotex recently came out with a new brand of products: U by Kotex. The new ads mock traditional tampon commercials and the oddities that are meant to represent menstruation: blue liquid, twirling on the beach, and a complete inability to actually say the word "menstruation." Take a look at a tampon ad: How clear is it that these products are for bleeding into? How different are these ads from, say, paper towel or diaper commercials?
Kudos to Kotex for pointing this out and making us laugh in the process -- but how much of an effect will these ads really have? Is it likely that from here on out, commercials for feminine hygiene products will engage in an open and honest dialogue about a) what your period is and b) how to deal with it? Not likely.
It's important to remember that these commercials are first and foremost a marketing strategy. Kotex is trying to sell more tampons, not make you feel better about wearing sweats and eating M&M's instead of running on the beach or going dancing.
There are so many issues surrounding the feminine hygiene industry, and stigma is only one of them. As consumers, we should be demanding more from the producers of these products than just entertaining advertisements.
First, let's look at why the ads are so ridiculous in the first place. The stigma surrounding menstruation has existed for hundreds of years and is still present in many cultures across the globe. For most of human existence, women have created their own feminine hygiene products. While disposable sanitary products became commercially available in the late 19th century, they didn't become popular until, like almost anything else beauty- or hygiene-related, someone realized they could make more money by making women insecure about their bodies.
When advertisers figured out how to properly package, market, and sell the products discreetly, pads and tampons caught on. Advertising for feminine hygiene products often emphasizes that "no one has to know." From a young age, women are taught not to let anyone -- especially men -- know that they are menstruating. Feminine hygiene products keep us "protected," "fresh," and "discreet." I know that women, myself included, often complain that men are oblivious. But I'd like to know if we're really fooling anyone.
Most tampon commercials don't clarify what the product is for and how to use it. The most important component is the secrecy. While Kotex has supplemented their ads with features on their website (such as actual tutorials and a "Declaration of Real Talk"), networks are still balking at the bluntness of the ads, rejecting use of the word "vagina" and even an ad referring to the area as "down there." If we can talk about erectile dysfunction and haemorrhoids on TV (arguably more embarrassing conditions), why is there such an aversion to words relating to women's problems?
I don't believe that we should abandon the idea of feminine hygiene products -- I'm as interested in staying "fresh" and "protected" as the rest of my sex. What I am against is the imposed secrecy and the coercion to buy into a market with few affordable or safe alternatives.
A woman menstruates for at least 40 years of her life. That adds up to about 11,000 pads or tampons used and $2000-5000 spent, depending on the brand. Since women make up more than half the population, this sum represents an enormous market and, most importantly, one which is likely to be brand loyal. This market is divided between very few companies. When the maker of Tampax tampons was taken over by Proctor and Gamble in 1997, it had control of 55% of the tampon market, while Proctor and Gamble (makers of Always and Whisper) had 36%. Despite this, the U.S. Justice Department ruled that this was not an unfair advantage. The only other company that offers any competition is Kimberley Clark, the makers of Kotex and Playtex.
These companies have to sell, so the phrase "new and improved" has never been used as frequently as when referring to menstrual products. The belief is that if the company can get the customer young, they'll have them for the rest of their menstruating years. This hook still requires a reason for a girl to choose one brand over another. "Ultra-thin," "leak proof," "discreet packaging" are all "innovations" of the last few years. Do you remember those Kotex pads with the fabric packaging, designed to be extra-quiet, so no one could hear you (gasp!) unwrapping your pad?
I'll admit it, I bought into this one. I live with three boys, so I was not immune to the seductive advertising. Not only were these wrappers NOT quiet, I realized that if the boys didn't have to hide their disgusting bathroom habits, I shouldn't hide my (perfectly natural) one.
The real problem isn't what to buy. With two forms of protection and little competition, the industry has effectively taken away our choice on that one. The biggest problem is how much it all costs. In 1991, Tambrands, the maker of Tampax, decreased the number of tampons per box from 40 to 32 and increased the price per tampon. By 1998, this price was even higher, and the boxes contained only 18. Unlike the other necessities of life, like milk or orange juice, tampons and pads are taxed the same way televisions are. How unfair is that?
There are also potential health risks associated with tampons. I'm not talking about TSS - we've all heard the horror stories, but deaths from this symdrome are rare. The harm from tampons comes from dioxins. Dioxins are not manufactured chemicals but form as a by-product of any process that involves chlorine or combustion of organic materials. Society's preoccupation with the colour white (a symbol of cleanliness and purity) leads to extensive chlorine bleaching, which creates dioxins. Dioxins are known to be highly carcinogenic, are toxic to humans and animals, and can accumulate over time in fatty tissue. While tampon manufacturers claim that the levels of dioxins in tampons are small, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that there may be no such thing as a "safe" level of exposure.
Even 100% cotton tampons are treated with the one billion tons of herbicides and pesticides poured on U.S cotton crops every year. These products are then exposed to the most sensitive area of our body, and there is evidence that over 25% of tampon users have some alteration to the mucus membrane of the vagina. Tampons have the capacity to dry out this membrane, leaving lacerations, lesions, and small fibres that can pose health risks. Did you know that these "sanitary" products are not actually "sanitized"? Furthermore, most safety testing is carried out by the manufacturing companies themselves.
While there are alternatives to the big brand tampons, they are difficult to find and often cost more. Major magazines are unable to promote alternative products because major brands like Kimberley Clark and Proctor & Gamble provide such a large percentage of advertising revenue. Pads and tampons are also not considered "necessity" items by the federal government -- meaning that we pay GST for tampons and t-shirts but not for bread or milk.
Another problem posed by feminine hygiene products is the environmental threat that the industry poses. Eleven thousand sanitary products equals 200-300 pounds of waste in a lifetime. Multiplied by the number of menstruating women in the western world (about 85 million), this waste adds up to thousands of acres of landfill space. Though pads and tampons are often biodegradable, their packaging and applicators are not. A 2006 study (PDF) of Marine Debris on Halifax Beach, Nova Scotia showed that plastic waste accounted for 86 percent of all debris found, and tampon applicators were the most commonly found item. This debris is not only harmful and inconvenient for people living in coastal areas but for marine wildlife as well.
Before you think that I'm going to call on the women of the world to abandon our maxi pads and bleed freely on the streets, I want to add that I don't think tampon companies are inherently evil, nor do I think that our desire to minimize, deodorize, or generally ignore our monthly gift is the sole result of patriarchal oppression. Menstruation kind of sucks. It's uncomfortable, messy, and usually a pain to deal with. But before we run out and buy a pack of U by Kotex (it comes in "lipstick" colours!) we should encourage manufacturers to address the rest of the issues posed by feminine hygiene market -- namely, the ridiculous mark-up, the potential health risks, and environmental damage posed by the products. This issue affects a substantial group of consumers, but without solidarity within this group, the market isn't going to change itself.
While we're at it, I wouldn't mind getting rid of the PMS jokes, either.