SHAME ABOUT THAT AD: Challenging female stereotypes in advertising

Suzanne Harrington challenges a marketing campaign’s premise that girls feel less equal at puberty

SHAME ABOUT THAT AD: Challenging female stereotypes in advertising

The Proctor & Gamble sanitary product brand is behind a documentary which features a young girl, Dakota, who doesn’t understand the negativity of “throwing like a girl” whereas the adults, both male (above) and female adhere to the stereotype of females being the weaker gender. THE advertising of sanitary products continues to evolve. From zero acknowledgement of the existence of menstruation to discretion, embarrassment and the avoidance of shame being predominant themes. Illustrated by that infamous blue liquid being carefully poured onto menstrual products by men in lab coats — to roller-blading down mountain sides in tight white jeans, we’ve come a long way, baby.

At least, that is what we are led to believe. But have we? The latest advertising campaign from Proctor & Gamble’s sanitary product brand, Always, hooks in on the phrase ‘like a girl’. On the surface, it’s a great idea, along the lines of Sheryl Sandberg’s Ban Bossy campaign.

American documentary maker Lauren Greenfield, whose previous work includes the award winning film Queen of Versailles, talks to older and younger girls about what it means to do something ‘like a girl’ — to run like a girl, throw like a girl, fight like a girl. How ‘like a girl’ is used as an insult.

The older girls who are asked to demonstrate what it means to run like a girl affect a useless style of running, all flappy-armed and knock-kneed.

They show how fighting like a girl involves more arm flapping and making useless noises, while throwing like a girl means dropping the ball. Then Greenfield asks some younger girls, what it means to run like a girl. In response, the younger girls just run. And fight. And throw. Normally, without affectation.

What the Always advert purports to do is destigmatise the idea of ‘like a girl’. To challenge the idea of doing something ‘like a girl’ means to do something badly, or wrong. And how girls’ self confidence supposedly nosedives on the cusp of adolescence. Greenfield talks about “that vulnerable time between the ages of ten and 12 ” where apparently a girl’s self esteem can plummet as her body is hijacked by the puberty aliens, as blood spouts from one end and boobs sprout from the other. And how the Always brand can help with that, not with product placement — we have moved beyond crass marketing to something more subtle — but by empowerment.

This is all terribly admirable. Isn’t it? Well, yes. Any discourse on how we socialise male and female children is always welcome. Already the advert is doing predictable rounds on social media accompanied by earnest gushes about its poignancy, its truth. There’s just one thing though — it’s an advert, made by the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and I imagine those girls appearing in it were not just randomly found in school play grounds, but were carefully casted and scripted. But the bigger question is this — does the self esteem of girls really collapse around puberty? The Daily Mail, not famous for its feminism, did an earnest piece on the “moving video on how young girls are affected by gender stereotyping“, while proceeding to gender stereotype itself to a standstill on every other page containing anything female.

Could it be that actually, it makes for a far better headline and / or advert if the story is that girls are all falling apart on the cusp of biological womanhood? Could the real story be that the younger we start telling girls they have something wrong with them, the more products we can sell to them — and to get them feeling insecure young, means ensuring their custom for life? Sorry to sound cynical. It’s just that when asked about what it means to run like a girl, the immediate answer from both my kids, male and female, was Jessica Ennis. Running like a girl, according to my daughter’s 13-year-old best friend, means training for a 5km park run at the weekend.

Fighting like a girl — well, let’s just say my 13-year-old daughter plays rugby.

So she must be dead butch then, right? Which is worse — butch or girly? How about neither?

My 13-year-old daughter is girly and tough in equal parts. She rides horses, walks Rottweilers, and because there are no magazines dedicated to self-loathing in the house, she wouldn’t know a diet plan or a Kardashian from a hole in the ground. She bakes cupcakes, sews, knits and draws.

She wears cute girly dresses and big Dr Marten boots, glittery nail varnish and hair shaved at the sides. She is soppy and kind hearted, but could equally flatten you if she needed to. She took the arrival of periods in her stride, and doesn’t let her adult-sized boobs stop her from playing contact sport like rugby and netball. She runs and swims for her school.

She likes boys, but doesn’t put up with any nonsense. She’s a healthy mixture of self esteem and groundedness.

And actually so are her most of her friends. The whole period thing isn’t really a thing. A straw poll amongst my daughter and her friends revealed the same phrase again and again: “It was a bit weird at first but I got over it.” Periods are only a big deal if you make them a big deal — like me, my daughter started hers very young, aged 10. Unlike me, she was born into a female world far more empowered and open than the 1970s; back then, there was lots of shaming and shushing. As though there was something to be embarrassed about.

Caitlin Moran, writing in The Guardian about her new novel How To Build A Girl, talks about teenage girls in terms of “independence, rebellion, curiosity, rock’n’roll and the carefully attended forming of your own desires.” This is a long way from girl-shaming. Girls are just young humans, but become deluged in societal baggage the moment they grow boobs; the Always advert suggests this happens even before puberty. But just as female puberty is not an illness, and does not need a cure, neither does doing anything like a girl actually mean anything much in real life.

Here’s the reality. Young boys these days, if properly brought up, are not sexist. My son and his friends, who are all around 11 or 12, would never say ‘like a girl’. It just wouldn’t occur to them. Obviously they say other massively offensive things, but not insults based on gender. Why? Because they have grown up in a more equal culture. These days, kids who come out with outmoded stuff stand out, the views of their parents stamped all over them. They are a minority. Girls are just getting on with it — like girls being themselves. It’s the media and marketing industries which would have you think differently.


The sanitary pad was once held in place by a Hoosier Sanitary Belt.

-Prototype tampons existed worldwide — in ancient Egypt they were made of softened papyrus.

-In an early incidence of girl power in ancient Greece, the philosopher Hypatia threw her menstrual rag at a man who was pestering her.

-Sanitary pads were commercially available 40 years before tampons. In 1896 Johnson & Johnson marketed a product called Lister’s Towels — Sanitary For Ladies, but had to change the name to Nupak because ladies didn’t like asking for the towels by name.

-Pharmacies then put cash boxes on their counters so that women could pay for their sanitary wear without having to ask the male clerk.

-Prior to the invention of the adhesive understrip, and later, wings, the sanitary pad was held in place by a grimly uncomfortable device called a Hoosier Sanitary Belt.

-The disposable tampon was developed in Denver in 1929 by a man called Dr Earl Haas.

-Funniest sanitary product advert ever ever ever: =

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