If asked what a typical TV commercial for menstrual hygiene products looks like, audiences would all describe something similar: Women jogging, swimming, or otherwise being active; a demonstration where blue dye (why is it always blue?!) gets poured onto a pad or soaks a tampon; women smiling and not looking cramp-y or uncomfortable in any way.
What you probably wouldn’t see in a commercial for menstrual hygiene products, however, are any men.
Thinx, the period-proof underwear brand, has changed that with its first-ever TV commercial that went live earlier this month. Called “MENstruation,” the ad depicts men and boys having common period-related experiences and illustrates how menstruation might feel a lot less taboo if cisgender men had it, too.
In one scene, a man rolls over in his bed, marking the bedsheets with a tell-tale bright red period blood stain. In another scene, a man walking with two others asks, “Do you have a tampon?” and another man pulls one from his coat pocket to share. There is even a scene depicting a tampon string dangling out of a man’s underwear as he walks through a locker room.
At the end of the commercial, writing appears on the screen over a Thinx underwear-clad body: “If we all had them, maybe we would be more comfortable with them. It’s time to get comfortable.” While the copy is certainly a reference to the underwear itself, it’s also a commentary on the widespread discomfort so many people have with menstrual blood.
Various 15- and 30-seconds long cuts of the commercial are playing on 18 stations nationwide for a total of eight weeks, according to a Thinx spokesperson.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, author of Periods Gone Public: Taking A Stand For Menstrual Equity and co-founder of Tax Free. Period. (a collaboration between Period Equity and menstrual hygiene products brand LOLA), tells O.school she enjoyed Thinx’s commercial and thought it was done “artfully.”
Weiss-Wolf says she is glad to see a company use its deep pockets — Thinx had $50 million in revenue at the end of 2019, Inc. reported — to address shame around menstruation. That’s a cause that activists like herself and others have labored on for decades; she notes that she thought of Thinx’s ad as a “riff” on Gloria Steinem’s iconic 1978 essay for Ms. magazine, “If Men Could Menstruate.”
Most ads for menstrual hygiene products have “not enabled honest and open discourse around menstruation,” says Weiss-Wolf. Nevertheless, brands are still limited by seemingly-arbitrarily-applied standards when it comes to ads. For example, Thinx’s commercial as seen on YouTube is different from cuts that are playing on TV. A press release from Thinx noted:
“Not surprisingly, as we continue to try to break taboos, we did meet some pushback, specifically as we learned that no blood, no matter what type, is allowed on television, and some networks would not approve the tampon string hanging out of the underwear.”
Weiss-Wolf hopes that the campaign’s desire to change cultural attitudes about menstruation is sincere. “I hope the goal is to run the ad and not just create the controversy of not running the ad,” she explains. Still, Weiss-Wolf continues, as a brand selling menstrual hygiene products, Thinx “can do a service for all of us by pushing the standards and the boundaries [of what is] considered acceptable” in advertising.
“It's still incumbent on all of us to push for an open discourse around menstruation,” she says. “I don't want to rely on any company selling a product.”