Marketing The Unmentionable: How To Market Taboo Products

Marketing The Unmentionable: How To Market Taboo Products

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At this year’s 92nd Academy Awards, there was glitz, there was glam, and there was a banned postpartum advert. The Academy and ABC – official broadcaster of the show – banned a postpartum ad from a US hygiene products for mothers of newborns company because it was deemed “too graphic”. The 60 second spot depicts a mother trying to use the toilet after giving birth, while also having difficulty with traditional postpartum sanitary products.

The Academy told the company – Frida Mom – the ad was “too graphic with partial nudity and product demonstration”. Consumers were quick to weigh in on the issue. The ban caught the ire of plenty of mothers and non-mothers alike. 

Even prominent US actress and talk show host Busy Philipps took to Instagram to air her frustrations to her 2 million followers. And now, at the time of writing, the ad has 1.5 million views on YouTube. While it appears some consumers are ready for more real and authentic adverts, is everyone ready? Not so much. 

Last year Asaleo Care, which makes Libra period pads, ran a campaign that featured about the different ways women experience their periods. Some of the scenes included a young girl removing a blood-stained pad from her underwear, and a close-up shot of a woman in the shower with blood running down her leg. While to many the campaign was a step in the right direction towards normalising periods, a large number of people took umbrage with the ad, with more than 600 objections to Ad Standards. 

Some people wrote to Ad Standards and said showing period blood was “disgusting”. Other complaints about the ad included that it was “distasteful”, “unnecessary”, “offensive and inappropriate”, “disturbing” and “not appropriate for children”. Others were outraged the ad was shown on TV early in the evening, complaining children might see it and ask their parents about periods. Ad Standards dismissed all the complaints, noting the advertisement was part of a campaign designed to normalise periods, and remove any stigma of shame or embarrassment.

Australian-owned menstrual underwear brand Modibodi knows all about the public not being ready for a particular conversation. Modibodi marketing and customer experience director Liana Lorenzato says when she first started at Modibodi over four years ago as its first employee, for the first two years there were more ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’s’ when it came to media, approaching stockists and consumers. 

Period cup brand Lunette has had a similar experience. Director Carol Morris says when Lunette first went to market, it would “get a mixture between terrified, shocking and ‘I want to run away’”.

She says, “But we just rolled with it because we understood Australians weren’t educated about the cup. To them it’s just very alien. It’s nothing like anyone had heard about, so we needed to build the education side.”

Morris says what helped start to change the conversation were education pieces around the cup, adding that when people understood how it actually worked, they became much more accepting of it.

She also says it does somewhat come down to the general public discourse and what people collectively are ready to discuss.

“The biggest movement we’ve seen has probably been in the past three years with this whole pro-period power movement. In our messaging we say, ‘there will be blood’ and it’s natural – get over it! 

Putting that sort of spin on it, that if you are grossed out and think your own blood is disgusting, then you’re a dated creature. That angle has made people keep their mouth shut about the ‘gross’ angle and actually get their head around the concept of how it works.”

So, what do all these aforementioned products have in common? What do all these products have in common? They’re considered taboo. Unmentionable. Downright awkward. 

Why? Because they’re the answer to very normal, very human bodily functions? Apparently so. 

So what’s a brand or marketer to do when they have the simple answer to common human matters, but consumers are too embarrassed to talk about it in public – or even see an ad about it? 

A Booming Industry No One Wants to Talk About 

Humans have sex. A good chunk of the population bleeds every month. Sometimes, humans develop head lice. Some go bald. All humans empty their bowels. And yet, when we hear, watch or read ads on such topics, many of us avert our eyes. 

We cover our ears. We blush. Why? Probably because from a young age we’re taught to cover up the fact we have bodily functions, or that it’s personal and unsavoury to talk about them in public.

So, when it comes to marketing unmentionable products, how do brands and marketers handle the stigma and ‘social awkwardness’? How do marketers go about engaging consumers in a conversation they might not feel comfortable having? It’s a challenge plenty of brands in Australia are embracing.

Take period cups, for example. Though to some people it might seem unsavoury, it’s a booming product. In a recent report by QY Research, in the past several  years, the global market of menstrual
cups has gained some decent traction. 

In 2018, global revenue of menstrual cups was at US$523 million (AUD$782 million). It’s a big market with lucrative earnings… if brands play their marketing strategy right. At Lunette, Morris says one misstep, especially at the start, can have detrimental consequences.

“With a taboo product, sometimes it doesn’t pay to be out there advertising across all platforms. It pays to hold back a bit because otherwise you could be shot down from the market from the word go, and then no-one’s going to want that product again because you’ve frightened them from the start.”

Another feminine hygiene product that’s taken off recently is menstrual underwear. According to 360 Research Reports, menstrual underwear is expected to grow 29.4 per cent over the next five years, from USD$79 million (AUD$118 million) to USD$370 million (AUD$552 million) in 2024. And, underwear brand Modibodi is certainly capitalising on the trend.

Lorenzato says launching Modibodi didn’t exactly go smoothly, and sometimes, it still struggles when going to market. “Mainstream media would tell us ‘it’s not for us’ or ‘it wouldn’t resonate with our audience’. We have even been censored in the past. 

“Even in 2020, we’ve had agencies, media channels and even creative suppliers decline to work with us due to how open we are about breaking taboos and stigmas around periods, incontinence and sweat.”

So, how do brands cut through the veil of what’s socially palatable? It’s all about knowing your why, your unique voice, and what resonates with your consumers. 

But let’s start at the beginning – the creative process.

Creative Process

What goes into the creative process? First of all, both Lunette and Modibodi have in-house marketing and creative teams.

Says Lorenzato, “All Modibodi’s strategy and creative elements are produced by our in-house marketing and creative teams in Sydney. We do have a global ‘village’ of agencies and creative partners that we work with on special projects when we require them. 

And, as a global business, it has marketing plans for each market, as well as a product release calendar, which Lorenzato says is crucial when it comes to planning campaigns and in market execution.

When it comes to media, Modbodi has a media agency who works in partnership with the brand on digital performance and some above-the-line activity.“We find having a village approach provides us with flexibility, great ideas and access to specialists for different campaigns,” says Lorenzato.

Over at Lunette, marketing is also done internally. Meanwhile, the media planning and buying is handled by Ruby Agency.

And what about messaging and brand voice? When it comes to the message and angle, Morris says for Lunette, it continues to change depending on the market.

“When we started, our marketing team found all the pads and the tampons companies were taking the approach of secrecy, and how you can almost forget about your period. So, the team tried concentrating on that angle, but this was 15 years ago.

“Then under a new marketing manager, we decided to do a bit more of an edgier thing, which is something the other tampon and pad companies hadn’t done. It was tongue-in-cheek things, like ‘much easier than your other cup size’, ‘go green when you see red’, ‘your periods are red not blue’. It was really a bit of a dig at the pads and tampon companies.”

Lunette also takes cues from cultural trends at the time. Originally, messaging and campaigns were all about how to use a menstrual cup and educational pieces.

“Then, the market went buzzing with the green, clean and the vegan movement,” says Morris. “Lunette cups are vegan, so we focus a lot of our campaigns on letting people know we’re green and vegan.”

Morris also says she finds it useful to look at what’s popular on the internet at the time, adding Lunette derives much of its creative concepts from memes.

“We look at memes and capitalise off that. Seeing what’s popular amongst social media is helpful. It’s why we decided to make the brand witty and take a different angle from our competitors, because memes are hilarious and resonate with our target market.”

For Modibodi, Lorenzato says it’s all about having a bank of creative ideas, while also believing in what you’re selling.

“If you have a bank of messages and creative on hand, you are ready to knock down doors with creative ideas and innovation. I also believe it’s important that the team you have working with you, internal and external, believe in the brand, business and mission and support your brand essence,” she says.

Change the Conversation

When it comes to marketing unmentionable products, it’s all about changing the conversation. According to influencer marketing platform TRIBE founder Jules Lund, the trick to marketing taboo products is to “tackle the awkwardness head on”.

“If you think about something that’s ‘taboo’ – say sex toys, taking a number two in a public bathroom, periods or whatever else it may be – the way to break that awkwardness is to start the conversation. The more people that hear and see ‘taboo’ things, the less taboo it becomes.

“Breaking the stigma is all about not giving a shit and marketing it as if it were any other product.”

TRIBE has worked on a number of unmentionable products, such as Pure Sensitive Viva La Vulva campaign, an Ann Summers vibrator and masturbation campaign and VIPoo Airwick, which openly promoted doing a number two in a public place.

Lund says the more it’s spoken about, the more accepted it becomes, while also noting that influencer marketing is a particularly effective way to do this because it’s real people promoting products they believe in, with followers who trust them. He also says controversy often works when trying to change the conversation.

“The more risqué… the more compelling. People are drawn to controversy. Many of these topics aren’t dangerous at all. They’re safe, but they are perceived to be dangerous, so the brand who plays with that earns the reward.”

An example in the US where a risqué move paid off for a brand is when the NYC subway wouldn’t run THINX, a period underwear company, ads on the subways. However, THINX wouldn’t back down. 

City officials called the ads, which showed a halved grapefruit with the tagline “Underwear for Women With Periods,” offensive and suggestive. But the resistance to the ads made THINX’s campaign stronger albeit via social. As the ad started to generate buzz, THINX fought back with creativity.

The new ad copy read: “For People With Periods” and featured a trans man using their product.

THINX ultimately won and got its ads up in NYC subways. The support on social media reached massive levels of visibility and helped create brand loyalty.

What helped THINX win was that someone in marketing took a risk, while the team stood behind the product and company mission.

The key takeaway? Changing the conversation, coupled with frank and honest presentation of difficult topics can pay off. And, if you get pushback, social media can help amplify your voice and mission.

Out of Ideas? Try the Funny Bone 

Humour goes a long way when marketing awkward products. Just look at Poo-Pourri, or Aussie brand Who Gives A Crap. Poo-Pourri – an odour masking toilet spray – uses humour to engage consumers, and it works. 

With campaign names such as “Being A Party Pooper Doesn’t Have to Stink”, “Make Your Dingleberries Smell Like Jingleberries” and owning the hashtag #GirlsDoPoop, Poo-Pourri has effectively sparked conversation around a very intimate action and opened up a dialogue around it. 

Australian sustainable toilet paper brand Who Gives A Crap also uses humour to their advantage. With a slogan like “Nice bum” – and even a rather cheeky brand name – Who Gives A Crap makes emptying your bowels a topic of conversation in a light-hearted and very non-awkward way.  

Lunette’s creative also relies on humour. Sometimes, however, it’s important to be aware of what your target market is, or isn’t, ready for. 

For Lunette, which is globally headquartered in Finland, there will sometimes be creative concepts that come through which Morris and her business partner believe Australia “isn’t ready for”.

“In Europe, they are quite big into the sex movement. Sex sells over there. A few years ago, they had a campaign promoting the fact you can still have oral sex with your cup. They had a t-shirt saying: Lunette, your partner will lick this a lot.

“And we said Australia is not ready for that. If we had brought that to the Australian market it would have caused quite a stir, and probably not a good one.

“So yes, humour is a good way to crack into the market, but you also need to know how far you can go.”

Lund also says humour “always works”, especially when using influencers as the mouthpiece.

“Giving influencers the creative freedom to express the message in their own tone works. Taking it one step further and giving them artistic freedom to interpret the themes with illustration, typography or stop motion takes it to another level. Everyone seems to win when it’s playful.”




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