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  • Re-Cycling: Reducing and Reusing Euphemism in Kotex’s Latest Campaign
  • Caitlin Ryus (bio)

The U by Kotex ads that were released in March 2010 articulated a critical attitude toward feminine care product advertising. Targeted towards 14- to 21-year-old women,1 the campaign aims to start a candid conversation about menstruation and vaginal care with the new generation of consumers by satirizing the conventions of the genre.2 Historically, marketing for menstrual management products has relied upon vague and metaphorical imagery due to network censorship driven by pervasive cultural taboos surrounding menstruation. Breaking from this established and rigid conversation with consumers is especially remarkable coming from Kotex. As the oldest producer of femcare products and thus the voice of origin for previous marketing strategies, Kotex, in their new campaign, takes aim at the euphemistic language previously used by their own industry. The current “Break the Cycle” campaign has managed to take a low-involvement product and generate a substantial consumer response on the Internet. Viewers have posted and reposted the commercials on Facebook, various blogs, and, of course, Youtube. To augment the television spots, U by Kotex also issued several online-only video spots humorously addressing the same themes in a more direct and uncensored manner. “Going viral” is one of the phenomena brought to us by new media and many brands are still grappling with how to achieve this consumer driven mode of advertising. For a tampon company, of all things, to achieve this status is unexpected.

Kotex introduced the first disposable menstrual products in the early 1920s3. The ads that accompanied the introduction of this consumer good would set the tone for the next century. Print ads for Kotex featured women from high society, often wearing evening gowns, with copy that read, “Eighty percent of all women in better walks of life have adopted this scientific way.”

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Figure 1.

Kotex ad, 1923.4

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Figure 2.

Kotex ad.

Modess, Kotex’s main competitor, echoed these elegant and apsirational marketing strategies up through the 1950s.

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Figure 3.

Modess print ad.

The evening gown was the first of many covert methods of communicating the products’ function and reliability to the viewer. Implicitly, it was a torture test. Evening gowns are expensive, they are hard to clean, and if you are wearing one, you are likely out among high society. Having an accident would ruin not only your dress, but also your social standing. The class aspect is especially important for two reasons. One, upper class women were the ones most likely to be literate and reading the ads and also most likely to have the means to purchase sanitary products. Secondly, marketing towards “women in better walks of life” made the unsavory nature of the product more acceptable.

In the late 50s, a Kotex print ad featured a woman in a white dress, with white gloves and a white hat behind a red rose bush pleasantly gazing into the distance.

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Figure 4.

Kotex print ad.

Flowers, white clothing, and blissful affect soon became staples in femcare advertisements. These themes, along with beaches, water, twirling, and horseback riding would be taken up by all the major brands (Tampax, Rely, o.b., Stayfree) and, even in the supposedly more liberated seventies, the print ads were still featuring women in white dresses lounging in grassy fields of wild flowers. Each of these themes discussed in this paper came to constitute convention through repetition by all femcare product lines for over half a century.

The most common imagery is loaded, often with conventional signs of femininity such as light colors and flowers. Light shades of pink, blue and lavender are commonly featured in the ads as well as the product packaging. These colors are not only conventionally feminine but are also childlike and infantilizing despite the fact that menstruation is commonly considered a sign of womanhood. Flower imagery is another tool for conveying traditional messages of femininity, and yet flowers are also notoriously said to represent female genitalia in art. Flowers are one of...