During World War I, Kimberly-Clark Corp. developed cellucotton, a wood-based substitute for surgical cotton. Red Cross nurses stationed in France discovered that cellucotton worked extremely well as a sanitary napkin. Following the war, Kimberly-Clark marketed Kotex sanitary napkins as its first consumer product through a separate subsidiary—the International Cellucotton Products Co.—to avoid the embarrassment of having the Kimberly-Clark name associated with such a product.
Chicago ad agency Lord & Thomas took over the Kotex account in 1924 from Charles F.W. Nichols Co. Kotex napkins were advertised as "a wonderful sanitary absorbent which science perfected for the use of our men and Allied soldiers wounded in France." Most early ads emphasized Kotex's status as "scientific" and endorsed by medical professionals.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the practice of birth control was rarely discussed publicly, being deemed beyond the bounds of good taste. In the U.S., the Comstock Law of 1873 banned "obscene" materials from the mails, making it illegal to sell or advertise products that were explicitly labeled contraceptives or that otherwise referred directly to sex. Despite the law, sales of contraceptives were brisk. Manufacturers used euphemisms and code language to mask the products' purpose while still allowing the savvy consumer to understand the advertisers' claims.
The term "feminine hygiene" was created around 1924 by the marketers of Zonite and Lysol, two popular household disinfectants that were also used as contraceptive douches. Under the banner of "feminine" or "marital" hygiene, these products could be purchased in the U.S. in the 1920s and '30s in department stores, drugstores and through Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs.
A 1930 court decision in a trademark infringement suit over Trojan condoms (Youngs Rubber Corp., Inc., v. C.I. Lee & Co.) recognized the trademark rights of Youngs Rubber Corp. to the Trojan product. Although selling a product as a contraceptive device was illegal, the ruling noted that birth control devices could nonetheless be used for "lawful purposes" other than contraception, and therefore such products could be legally advertised and sold as non-contraceptive devices or remedies.
This ruling meant that companies could market their birth control products as long as they did not refer to those products' benefits as contraceptives. Taking advantage of this legal loophole, more than 400 companies were competing in the female contraceptive market by 1938.
In 1936, U.S. law began permitting physicians to distribute birth control information. In 1945, the American Medical Association helped kill consumer advertising for contraception in the U.S. by stipulating that contraceptive marketers restrict their advertising solely to the medical community.
"Periodic wound" to "problem day"
Until the 1930s, Western doctors treated the female menstrual cycle as a disability and advised menstruating women to refrain from participating in rigorous physical activity. To some degree, ads for sanitary hygiene products countered this view. In a 1937 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, ads from J. Walter Thompson Co. depicted women wearing tennis togs, golfing outfits and other fashionable clothing while captions read, "For extra comfort on active summer days, demand Kotex."
Tampons, which had been improvised by women since ancient Egyptian times, became a commercial product in the 1930s in the U.S. Tampax Sales Corp., chartered on Jan. 2, 1934, originally sold tampons using direct sales to department and dry-goods stores and pharmacies. In 1936, Tampax Inc. was formed and launched a series of ads beginning with a campaign in New York newspapers.
From the earliest days of the marketing of sanitary products, advertisers recognized the importance of reaching pubescent females as potential first-time consumers, and they relied on ad campaigns aimed at mothers and daughters on the "facts of life." Most such ads included a coupon or an address to order a booklet explaining the physiological changes affecting the adolescent girl.
A 1925 ad headline suggested that "Every mother should tell her daughter this," while a headline from the 1930s showed a teen with her mother on a bobsled and then telling her friends, "My mom's a modern." In 1949, Kotex sponsored a "public service" ad in Ladies' Home Journal asking mothers, "Do you scare her to death?" The ad warned mothers not to share "some of the bogey ideas you picked up when you were a teen-ager" but rather to send away for a booklet or arrange for the school to borrow a film produced by Kotex to explain menarche to girls.
With the advent of World War II, women were expected to replace men, sent off to war, in the workplace, and the approach to menstruation as a disability became inappropriate. Advertisers of feminine hygiene products thus revised their appeals to help the war effort.
Following their stint as war workers, middle-class American women were encouraged to return to their domestic roles, and advertising for feminine hygiene products conformed to the image of the contented suburban homemaker. Ads from the 1950s suggested that American women could not use their periods as excuses for avoiding responsibilities such as tending the home, cooking, caring for children, playing hostess or serving their working husbands; instead, women were expected to carry on with appointed tasks while managing the inconveniences of menstruation.
A 1956 Modess campaign featured full-page color photos of serene models wearing stunning ball gowns. The simple tagline, "Modess because . . ." left the unmentionable subject unmentioned.
By the 1960s, Kotex was advertising that its napkins were "proportioned," and the company offered a selection of four styles of pads. Tampax revamped its packaging ideas and promoted a removable cellophane wrapper that enabled consumers to keep their tampons in a decorative and discretely unlabeled box. Also included in the package was a purse-size plastic container that held two tampons, and advertising suggested, "A beautiful new way to keep a secret."
An ad for New Confidets sanitary napkins from Scott conveyed the new shape of its product, while continuing the accepted advertising practice of not actually showing the product, by inserting a small sketch of the tapered napkin within the copy. "It's shaped to follow the lines of your body, wide in front and slim in back. It's new from Scott—a sanitary napkin that really fits." A color photo of a blonde in a white sweater and clingy white stretch slacks attested to the confidence with which women could wear the product. Indeed, models wearing white apparel became common in 1960s and '70s ads for sanitary products, emphasizing security and effectiveness.
You've come a long way, baby
By the 1970s, douches were a major feminine hygiene product line. In 1974, Zonite, marketed by Zonite Products Corp., capitalized on the knowledge that vaginal secretions were part of the normal functioning of women's bodies to promote its product as an "internal deodorizer" for women to combat the "tiny period" that "your body has every day."
A new product, Summer's Eve, from C.B. Fleet Co., offered a "quick, effective way to douche." Cunningham & Walsh handled the early advertising for the premixed douche and produced North America's first TV spot for a douche.
In the 1970s, the benefits of freshness were also promised by a new entry into the tampon category, Playtex deodorant tampons. "This fresh scent helps reduce doubt about intimate odor," the copy announced. More and more frequently, tampons and douches, and not simply their packaging, were depicted in the ads.
The 1970s also saw the introduction of Johnson & Johnson's Stayfree Mini-pad. "Why wear more than you have to?" ad copy asked. The ads suggested that women might need the pad often: for days when flow from their periods was light, for premenopausal changes, as extra protection when using tampons and for "everyday feminine discharge" in between periods. In short, there were no days of the month when Stayfree Mini-pads would not be needed, according to the product claims.
Sanitary paper products went through a series of innovations as major brands competed to offer new product benefits, such as increased absorbency. In the late 1970s, Procter & Gamble Co. developed super-absorbent synthetic fibers, which the company used in its Rely tampon; the product—with its tagline, "Rely. It even absorbs the worry," via Benton & Bowles—quickly became popular with consumers.
However, Rely tampons became linked with toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal infection caused when a common bacterium produced poisonous toxins. More than 50 women who used Rely died of TSS. In 1980, P&G withdrew the product from the market. To prevent TSS and allay consumer fears, tampon manufacturers stopped using all synthetic materials except rayon in their products. The crisis had long-term effects on the U.S. market, causing sales of tampons to drop from one-half to about one-third of the sanitary product market for more than a decade.
During the 1980s, manufacturers introduced a number of product innovations to sanitary napkins. Superabsorbent materials were added to napkins to create slimmer, "ultra-thin" pads, and shapes were altered. Print and TV ads began to show the actual napkins, using colored water to demonstrate absorbency or shielding ability.
Despite these changes, the market for sanitary napkins and tampons was fully developed in the U.S., U.K. and other highly developed nations. To expand their market, sanitary products marketers diversified into new products such as panty liners for everyday use.
In 1982, the National Association of Broadcasters overturned its longstanding broadcasting codes that had effectively banned contraceptive spots on TV and radio, but censors for the major U.S. TV networks and their owned-and-operated stations continued to forbid the advertising of birth control products. This policy prevailed until the growth of the cable industry and public health concerns over AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases opened new cracks in the TV wall of silence in the U.S.
In 1984, the Today contraceptive sponge from VLI Corp., with its agency Keye/Donna/Pearlstein, placed a 30-second spot on the USA Network and cable TV superstation WTBS. In 1985, spots for Thompson Medical Co.'s vaginal contraceptive suppository Encare began airing on more than 50 independent and college radio stations and four cable TV channels.
By 1986, the public health crisis over AIDS made the case for allowing TV commercials for birth control more compelling to U.S. broadcasters and advertisers. Ad executive Jerry Della Femina led advertisers and condom manufacturers to fight prohibitions against advertising condoms in newspapers and on broadcast TV. Scores of publications and TV stations began to accept condom advertising, including New York's WCBS-TV, which became the first network-owned TV station to broadcast such a commercial.
In the 1990s, sanitary product sales in the U.S. marked steady, if unspectacular, growth; in 1991, the market was approximately $2.4 billion, up from $1.3 billion in 1985. Companies continued to develop new products in the early 1990s, introducing "wings," or side flaps, on sanitary napkins that folded around the panty to protect it. Marketers used advertising to encourage the trend toward wearing products in combination (e.g., panty liners with tampons) and using different styles of protection on different days of the cycle. The industry saw increased everyday use of its products. Panty liners, used by many women even when they are not menstruating, became the category's top-selling product in terms of units.
Despite the inroads of commercial products, a vast majority of women around the world continue to use traditional methods of sanitary protection. Tambrands data in 1997 suggested that with 1.8 billion menstruating women in the world, only 400 million of them used commercial sanitary protection products. By 1998, Tampax tampons were being sold in more than 150 countries around the world.
Even at the turn of the century, the global growth potential of commercial sanitary products was still considerable; for example, 90% of Tampax's sales in the late 1990s came from countries with just 13% of the world's population.