Sanitary pads and tampons revolutionised feminine care when they were launched to consumers around 100 years ago. But the marketing of these products has only recently begun to talk about their purpose directly.
For many years, marketing has been steeped in euphemisms that play into the shame and embarrassment many people who menstrute feel when their periods come along. Tampons were marketed as devices "worn internally" without ever overtly referencing female genitalia. When Kotex tried to use the word vagina in an ad in 2010, nearly an entire century after tampons were first introduced, it was banned from doing so by TV networks.
Procter & Gamble's Tampax and Kimberly-Clark's Kotex embraced themes such as female empowerment and liberation early on in feminine care marketing, with ads showing women going about their work and social life "in complete comfort". But this was without ever referencing periods, which they continued to treat as a taboo. The word 'period' was first used in a Tampax ad in 1985.
From the 1920s to the present day, here's a visual history charting the evolution of tampon and pad marketing.
1920s: Hospital approved
Kotex sanitary napkins were the first products to be marketed and sold in the feminine care category in 1921. Kimberly-Clark created Kotex from leftover cellucotton, a bandage material made from cellulose wood pulp, that was used as a surgical dressing for wounded soldiers during the war. Wartime nurses had used the bandages during their periods, inspiring Kimberly-Clark to develop a product specifically designed for their needs. The pads were sold in a hospital blue box.
1930s: A new day for womanhood
The tampon was invented in 1931, and the patent was purchased by a Denver-based female entrepreneur in 1934. Two years later, the first Tampax tampons were released for sale, and in the same year the brand took out its first ad, pictured above, welcoming women to a “new day for womanhood”.
As Tampax adopts the medical blue packaging, Kotex, meanwhile, redesigns its sanitary pads with bright, colorful packages designed to reflect "comfort, quality and confidence".
1940s: Keeping your periods secret
In the 40s, Tampax ads focus on the practicality of tampons, as Kotex debuts its "Not a shadow of a doubt" slogan that flaunts the secrecy that its products afford people who are menstruating. In an attempt to address the taboo of periods, Kotex teamed up with Disney in 1946 to produce a 10-minute educational film aimed at young women.
1950s: Go about your life in comfort
1960s: Brands focus on inspiring confidence
1970s: Don't let your period ruin your beach day
1980s: Tampons offer the security to wear white and sexy lingerie
Brands address the insecurities people who menstruate get around their period. Tampax focuses on how it can inspire the confidence to wear white, while Kotex takes a sexier route.
In 1985, Tampax becomes the first brand to use the word 'period', in a TV commercial featuring Courtney Cox.
1990s: Tampax addresses virginity concerns
In a first-person ad in 1990 and another in 1991, Tampax addresses the rumour that using a tampon changes a person's virginity status.
2000s: Kotex attempts to remove shame from periods
2010s: Kotex attempts to be embrace the vagina, and mocks its own ads
In 2010, Kotex attempted to stop tip-toeing around the topic of female genitalia by using the word 'vagina' in an ad, but the ad was banned by TV networks before it could be broadcast.
In the same year, the brand began running a series of TV spots that poked fun at how tampons used to be marketed using white trousers and horse-riding girls and blue liquid. "Why are tampon ads so ridiculous?", the ads state.
2020s: Kotex embraces period blood as red, not blue
Bodyform became the first company to use a red liquid to represent period blood in a commercial for its pads in 2017, instead of the clinical blue liquid that had been used since the 90s. Kotex followed in 2020.
It seemed like tampon advertising was making progress. But in the same year, a Tampax ad that aimed to educate tampon users on how to safely and correctly insert a tampon was pulled in Ireland after viewers complained the ad was "vulgar" and "crossed the line of decency." It seems years of marketing tampons and pads with euphemisms has set expectations among the public that will take a while to dismantle.