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Female hygiene category communication has come a long way, but progress has been slow, say ad honchos

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Female hygiene category communication has come a long way, but progress has been slow, say ad honchos

BBDO India recently won the Glass Grand Prix at Cannes for Whisper ‘Touch the Pickle’ campaign which challenged age old taboos about period, including ‘pickles will rot, when touched by a menstruating woman’. The communication made an attempt to encourage women to defy inherent taboos and traditions which are ingrained deep in our society by touching the Pickle jar. Another sanitary brand, Sofy has also come out in the open and is questioning women the logic behind them saying ‘I am down’ in their latest digital video titled #IamnotDown which is going viral. They have also roped in stand-up comedian Radhika Vaz, where she gets unapologetic about her periods.

Communication in this category has seen a drastic change because  two decades ago, advertising of sanitary napkins was not only difficult, but it was also not allowed on Indian television before 9pm. The commercial used phrases like ‘Un Dino’, Who Chaar Din’ to project a woman’s distress during those days.  The tone used was extremely indirect and no one came out loud and open with it, those were the days of joint families and women found it extremely embarrassing to watch it along with their families. Few of the adlanders feel that probably the reason why menstruation was regarded as a taboo back then was because there were very low hygiene facilities available. But things have changed today, with numerous brands coming into the market; there is no place for a taboo like this to exist in the society.

Keeping in tune with the society’s change in mind-set, where young women talk about their period a little more matter-of-factly, the projection of menstruating women in campaigns have also seen a drastic change. Brands today are making an attempt to break free the taboo and initiate free flow of conversations. Agencies are now coming out with bold and conversational campaigns and are not attempting to shy away from a phenomenon which is as natural as menstruation.

We spoke to advertising honchos to understand their views on this transition.

KV Sridhar aka Pops, Chief Creative Officer, Sapient Nitro

Around the 80s, advertisement of female hygiene products like sanitary napkins was not even allowed on Indian television before 9pm. Also at that time, red ink was used, instead of blue, making it all the more uncomfortable for women to view these ads along with their families. There were no niche channels at that time and therefore it was actually very tough to have any conversation around menstruation. Things slowly started to change, when satellite channels came in, niche channels got formed, TAM made its entry, the red colour got banned, and then talking about menstruation in campaigns became a lot easier. Other than the ad campaigns, today a lot of these brands are going for activations to spread education and it is working.

This education needs to percolate in the rural areas as girls there are the real sufferers. On one hand, the government in order to educate girl child will provide free education to them, but how will she go to a school, if you don’t even provide her with a basic facility of a washroom? There the problem is not only of poor sanitation facilities, but also of ignorant mothers, she herself is using the age old cloth. Therefore, I particularly like the initiative of P&G where in order to educate and clarify doubts in the minds of young school girls; they appoint ambassadors, who are seniors from the same school (Didi).

Priti Nair, Co-Founder, Curry Nation

I have actually never really understood why people shy away from the word ‘Period’. What is the big deal in it? It is a part of our biological process and it is a sign that we are getting ready for motherhood.  It was really sad that advertisements earlier used words like ‘Un Dino’, ‘Woh Chaar Din’, to say that a woman is on her periods. Thank God, advertisements have finally started talking straight about it. I feel that media should initiate more conversations around it, because it has the weapon to initiate change and make real progress happen.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay, Executive Creative Director, Ogilvy & Mather, South Asia

I remember when I used to attend focus groups during research on feminine hygiene products, women used to say that it is embarrassing for them to see the ads on TV with their family around. And this was in the period when the advertising was, on the one hand, clinical and, on the other, portrayed women as these ethereal beings who floated through life untouched by something so 'real' as menstruation. With the new crop of tell-it-like-it-is ads I wonder what shade of red those women are turning. Perhaps they've stopped watching TV altogether. Or, there's the off chance that they've been forced by their daughters to evolve. The reason being, today's young woman talks about her period a little more matter-of-factly. It's a reflection of a general trend of breaking down taboos. 


Successful advertising has always been about having a finger on the pulse of the people -- and then trying to appeal to that. The younger generation in India has developed a preference for realism, so advertising is riding that wave. If you look at our movie industry, many new directors are trying to break the Bollywood mould and come up with films like Margarita with a Straw. Youngsters are more in tune with global trends and they have, for example, a far more liberal outlook towards LGBT issues. This is a why the sensitively-handled ad that portrays a lesbian couple has become all the rage. Of course, there are many different Indians. This particular ad has been a hit on social media, which is consumed by a more urban youth audience with a Westernised mind-set. The same ad may not go down well with some sections of the traditional Doordarshan audience, for example.

Josy Paul, Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, BBDO

Indian advertising is embracing social-cultural tension points and conflicts, and finding creative ways to resolve these issues. Young Indians are questioning the stereotypes of the past and liberating advertising from the traditional clutches of the perfect model-hero archetype. In August last year, P&G’s sanitary napkin brand ‘Whisper’ challenged myths and taboos surrounding women’s periods. Something that was unspoken and kept under wraps for was brought out in the open with #TouchThePickle. It started a movement that got media, social platforms, student organisations, stand-up comedians and even TEDx talking about the subject openly – something like this had never happened in India before. Creativity in India no longer sits on the fringes. It stands right in the middle of society. Clients are not just taking risks, they are taking sides – and going all out and aligning themselves with national agendas. It is no longer just about selling but about leading consumers to a higher plane. 

I feel the word 'advertising' is outdated. We need to find a new word to replace it. Advertising lives in old fashioned boxes and does not flow and resonate with the new consumer world. It's dragging us back. The consumer is running faster than advertising. That's why we keep saying 'create acts, not ads'. But not everybody is getting it.

Santosh Padhi, co-founder & Chief Creative Officer, Taproot

Over the years, consumers have grown and become way mature. They are now not obsessed with product demo, instead are asking for interesting things. Earlier who could have thought that a 3-minute film will do well in India, but it is working well and people are appreciating it. Story telling has changed and newer ways to tell the same thing have come up. What worked 20 years back, will not work today. Advertising works purely by studying human behaviour and now with the change in consumer’s mind-set, portrayal of things are also getting changed and this also applies to the female hygiene category.

Prathap Suthan, CCO, Bang in the Middle

There are three things, because of which, it doesn’t make me the right observer of the category. I have been born in family of 3 boys and we never had the problem or the need to discuss this issue, secondly, I have never handled the category myself and finally in spite of being in co-ed schools and colleges and having a deep understanding, the subject was never spoken about. But on joining advertising and on being exposed to a lot of international advertising, I found that Western countries have successfully demolished the myth around menstruation. During the late 80s, one of my female colleague first came up to me and discussed the problems she was facing in her menstruation. Initially I had my hesitation, and asked myself- why me? I am a Man, how will I help? But it was actually a very positive sign, because it helped me to have a conversation with her.

Today advertising in this category has achieved a very basic stage, merely for educating people. The intellectual class has been able to overcome the inherent taboo attached to it, but education needs to go deeper, in order to see real change taking place in our country.   

 Saurabh Dasgupta, ECD, Innocean Worldwide

It time for taboos like these to go from the society and we need to start thinking logically and scientifically. I completely support initiatives like ‘Touch the pickle’ which has been successful in generating conversations and making people think and open up. The evolution of advertising in this category has been slow, because the taboo was placed so strongly. What is happening today couldn’t have happened before, because that would have given every one a culture shock and would have not been accepted well in the society. I am happy to see, what is happening now, advertising has managed to evolve and real change is happening today.

Suresh Eriyat, founder and Creative Director, Eeksaurus

Whisper earlier used to take a very indirect tone, there was a kind of embarrassment attached to it, while talking about menstruation. Probably at that point of time, it was their decision to play safe and they went with the flow in the fear of getting rejected. Advertisements had the lethargy to come out in the open and talk about it. But now things are changing and this is a progressive sign, more and more brand should come out and speak about it. Open discussions are the first step and advertisement has taken that step. It was advertising which made it a taboo for women and now they are repairing it.

View the ads here:

Whisper: Touch the Pickle:

Sofy conversations:

Sofy conversation-Radhika Vaz:


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