The U by Kotex team had that not-so-fresh feeling about advertising-driven myths surrounding women’s bodies. So they decided to speak up—starting with the word vagina.
We’re living in the 21st century, not the 1950s. (Or the 1850s, for that matter.) So presumably we—at least the adults among us—are all pretty enlightened about human sexuality and comfortable with the proper scientific terms for our various body parts, right?
Uh, not exactly. “Remember, just last summer, [state] Rep. Lisa Brown was banned from speaking on the floor of the Michigan House because she used the word vagina,” says Victoria Azarian, O&M’s group Creative Director on the U by Kotex line of tampons and pads. “She used it in context”—during a speech about reproductive rights—“and yet she was banned from speaking the next day by the Speaker of the House because of her use of that word. Which is insane.”
The U by Kotex team experienced a sense of déjà vu when it approached the broadcast networks to present the first tv spot in the “Generation Know” campaign. They got nothing but rejection after rejection—all because of a certain word. Absurdly, it seems that vagina is deemed “unacceptable” and “inappropriate” language. Absurd, but perhaps not really surprising. Market research conducted with Kimberly-Clark’s U by Kotex brand team found that nearly seven out of 10 girls agree that the word vagina is “looked down upon by society.” And given that taboo, there’s no shortage of misinformation about vaginal health, periods and tampons.
“When it comes to talking about their period, girls still feel uncomfortable and ashamed,” Azarian says. “I think Kimberly-Clark, because of the products they make, feel like it’s their responsibility to change that—to educate young women and make them more comfortable with the topic.” In a way, the new U by Kotex campaign was created to undo the effects of decades of marketing. “Advertisers created terms like sanitary napkin, advertisers referred to feminine hygiene,” says Harper Reitkopf, who served as planner on the U by Kotex account for the launch of “Generation Know”. “It’s all so clinical—as if having your period is dirty, and there’s something wrong with you that needs to be taken care of.”
And so the U by Kotex team came up with a content-marketing strategy built around the idea of an informal educational program for girls and young women that wouldn’t come off as awkward or stilted—in other words, that wouldn’t resemble the sex-ed programs taught around the world, year after year, to red-faced 13-year-olds. The centerpiece of the program is a mini-documentary series of short YouTube documentaries focusing on four young women known for their smart, candid talk about women’s health: Amber Madison, Seventeen’s sex expert and the author of Hooking Up; Hillary-Anne Crosby, creator of Vagina :: The Zine; Aline Sibomana, board member of the nonprofit group Girls For A Change; and video blogger Kat Lazo (TheeKatsMeoww).
The goal of “Generation Know,” U by Kotex management supervisor Terri Mattucci says, was to find very real, very honest women who’d stand apart from the preternaturally cheery, sporty models who frolic their way through traditional (read: annoying) tampon ads. So the frank, funny videos feature Madison and her fellow “Generation Know” project leaders talking about why girls and women have been so conditioned to speak in euphemisms—or not at all—about their own bodies. “Until I was, I think, 16,” says Madison in one of the videos, “I thought when I got my period, it would mean spring is coming!” (Cue vintage clip of a woman celebrating her “freshness” by pirouetting through a field of daisies.)
O&M’s U by Kotex team also created an actual vagina puzzle—known as the Vajuzzle—and, in a bit of street theater, brought it to New York City’s Washington Square Park, the de facto town square of Greenwich Village and New York University. Here, the “Generation Know” team asked passing women: “Do you know what this is?” and “Can you name the parts?” Many on-the-spot interviewees seemed unsure of the specifics of their own anatomy.
The Vajuzzle has also appeared in some high school seminars in a partnership with Girls For A Change, which has conducted sessions with girls in high schools across America to educate them about their own anatomy and dispel common myths. (Yes, you can get pregnant when you’re having your period.)
“We’re not saying girls should be screaming ‘vagina!’ from the rooftops,” Azarian says. “But we are saying that at least you should be able to say it without any sort of shame or embarrassment.”