There Has to Be a Better Way to Sell Tampons

Why does so much marketing center around candy and infantilized language? Two editors discuss.
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A 'tween girl is having no fun at summer camp because she doesn't know anyone and, in her words, is "just a big, random loser." She sits alone, miserable, while the other girls play together. Then, one day, her fortunes change: She gets her period for the first time. She manages to wield this "red badge of courage" to make herself popular, appointing herself the "camp gyno" and handing out tampons to her friends who don't have any. But her fortunes soon change again. Her bunkmates start getting tampon-filled care packages, meaning her personal-hygiene supply is no longer in demand. Our heroine ends where she began: in social obscurity.

This is the plot of a new ad for a tampon-delivery service called Hello Flo. Is it funny? Effective? Annoying? And what does it say about the ways personal products are sold to women? We discuss.


Ashley: I’m trying to decide how to feel about this: 

Eleanor: Hmm.

Ashley: Right? I think I want to like it more than I actually do like it.

Eleanor: Yeah, I appreciate that it doesn’t make getting your period seem icky or weird or shameful, and that it uses correct anatomical terminology.

And yet. What annoys me about these tampon delivery services (HelloFlo isn’t the only one--there's also The Period Store, Le Parcel, SentHerWay, and Juniper, which are all similar) is something that bothers me about a lot of products marketed toward women. I can see how this service would be helpful: It's really annoying to get your period and realize you are out of tampons and then scramble to get them at the last minute. Getting a monthly shipment of supplies fixes that problem.

The way these services are sold, however, drives me insane.

Ashley: Really? How come?

Eleanor: Just sell me on its usefulness, sell me on its convenience. Don't try to make me buy into this hip lifestyle brand represented by a precocious 11-year-old.

Also, if you follow the link to the website, you'll see it asks you to tell them "when you flo." "When you flo": Why not, "When you get your period"? Why does this regular biological occurrence have to be described in cutesy language?

Ashley: Yeah, that’s infantilizing.

Eleanor: Also, the tampon shipment comes with candy. Why does candy have to be involved?

Ashley: Yes, exactly. It almost feels like it sells getting your period as way more insufferable than it actually is.

Eleanor: YES

Ashley: As though women somehow just can't handle getting their period without a side of chocolate, when in reality this happens every month. Women generally learn how to deal.

This is a problem with the art at The Period Store, too. The art on the website makes getting your period look like getting food poisoning, or the stomach flu or something. You see this illustrated girl slouching around in her pajamas, picking up the package from her front door all huddled over, and then you see her lying on the couch clutching the package and covered in a blanket.

I get that some women do get hit really hard when they get their period, and have to stay home from school or work. But that’s both uncommon and, in many cases, treatable. Getting your period doesn’t have to require quarantining or bathrobe-moping as a rule. Plenty of women just keep on keepin’ on during their periods—shocking as that may be.

Eleanor: Exactly.

As I was saying earlier, this is all part of a larger gripe I have with certain products marketed toward women: They’re not marketed for their effectiveness, but for some broader message they supposedly send about womanhood.

For example, Dove soap. I love Dove soap. It smells good. It cleans my skin without drying it out.

I've been using it my whole life and have no intention of ever switching brands. The only time I come close to swearing off Dove soap is when I see one of their condescending commercials about BEAUTY.

Ashley: Yes!

Eleanor: Just tell me about the product. Tell me how good it is, because it IS good.

Ashley: That sounds like the reverse Don Draper approach: You want to buy the product, not the feeling.

Eleanor: Well, I think it’s possible to make the “feeling” aspect of the ad more closely associated with reality. To go back to the tampons, for example: Make the Hello Flo ad about how much it sucks to not have a tampon when you need one. Make it a sweet story about a date. It’s the first time you have a guy over, you're cooking him dinner, you go to the bathroom, realize you got your period and that you’re out of tampons. You have to sneak out the back door to run to the CVS to buy a pack. Meanwhile, the guy thinks you've drowned in the bathroom.

Ashley: This actually sounds like a great ad.

Eleanor: All this could have been solved if you only had a service to send you a new pack of tampons every 28 days. That's still selling a certain lifestyle, a certain nostalgia. But it's grounded in reality.

Ashley: It's selling actual problem-solving, though, too.

Eleanor: Yeah, rather than this cute but also odd story about summer camp and being a tampon fascist, rather than selling the horrid pain of getting your period a la the art in The Period Store, you’re fixing a real problem a lot of women have.

It’s really striking to compare the Camp Gyno ad to the Dollar Shave Club ad that went viral last year. It’s a similar concept: a monthly shipment of a gender-specific personal product you normally buy at a drugstore. But notice how the Dollar Shave Club ad BEGINS with a pitch on how easy the service is to use and how great the razor blades are:

And does the razor shipment come with some stereotypically manly side item, like a cigar or…I don’t know, beef jerky? No! Just the razors. Just the razors.

Ashley: Totally. In fact, feel like a lot of women – including me – would respond positively to an advertisement that talked about the panic-minimizing, convenience-maximizing effect of having tampons delivered monthly but also featured a hilariously deadpan woman saying, “Are our tampons any good? No. Our tampons are f—king great.”

And speaking of tampons that are f—king great, there *have* been a few clever ads that sold tampons on how effective they are. Apparently this one was banned, but I remember seeing it on TV:

Eleanor: That’s good.

Ashley: Yeah it's clever.

Eleanor: And again is ultimately about the product, and how it works, while also attaching it to sexiness, youthfulness, and so on.

Ashley: Exactly, that's what made me think of it.

Also, this came up when I was searching for that last ad, and it takes "product effectiveness" to a terrifying level:

Eleanor: Oh, no.

Ashley: Hahah, yup.

Eleanor: Okay, yes, it can go too far. On balance I prefer "Camp Gyno" to "Jaws 5."

Ashley: Real talk.

Eleanor: STILL, we shouldn't have to choose. There is a middle way.

Ashley: Most definitely.

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Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn & Ashley Fetters

Eleanor Barkhorn is a senior associate editor for The Atlantic. Ashley Fetters edits and produces the Entertainment channel.

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