LONDON—For decades, marketing around women’s periods and genitals has often been laughably unrealistic at best and destructively shame-inducing at its worst.
In 2017, Essity dramatically dumped out the blue liquid and other ridiculous tropes of tampon and pad advertising with the launch of #BloodNormal, a campaign nearly unprecedented in its ambition to rewrite an entire category of marketing aimed at 51% of the world’s population.
On Thursday, the company’s newest campaign—”Viva La Vulva,” created in 2018 to promote a new line of washes and wipes—was honored with a Black Pencil, the highest award given at the London-based D&AD festival. It’s the third Black Pencil earned in the history of AMV BBDO, which says it’s the first agency ever to amass three of the coveted awards.
Shortly before the award was announced for “Viva La Vulva” (which also won seven other trophies at the festival), Adweek caught up with AMV BBDO creative partner Nadja Lossgott and Essity exec Martina Poulopati for a conversation about how their work together is successfully dismantling stigmas around the globe.
You can listen to the podcast of our interview below, subscribe via any podcast platform such as Apple Podcasts, and read the following transcript of the interview.
Adweek: For context, remind us which brands Essity might be known for around the word.
Martina Poulopati, Essity
Martina Poulopati, global brand communications manager, Essity:
Essity Feminine Care is a Swedish-founded company that has feminine care brands across the world. Actually, more than 50% of our business is in Latin America. These are the brands Saba and Nosotras in South America—these are our pride and joy, the No. 1 brands in that region. And then in Europe, we would be known as Bodyform in the U.K., Libresse in Scandinavia and The Netherlands, Nana in France, Nuvinia in Italy. Different brand names, but they all stand for the same thing, they all have the same vision, they all have the same look and feel. So despite the different brand names, we try to to see ourselves as one Essity Feminine Care.
How would you describe the concept of #BloodNormal?
Nadja Lossgott, creative partner, AMV BBDO: In 2016, Bodyform/Libresse commissioned some global research, and out of that research came some shocking facts. Like, 50% of girls would rather be bullied at school than talk to their parents about their periods. Nine out of 10 women hide their periods. So they’ll, for example, just never even mention that they’re on their period, or try and make a covert mission to the toilet across the office by putting their pad down their boot and then run.
“The way that we treated the idea was to treat it the same way that you would get a tissue to blow your nose. Half the world’s population goes through that every month.”
Nadja Lossgott, creative partner, AMV BBDO
Half of women have been period shamed. So in the world that we were living in at the time, absolutely no one spoke about it, and it was completely shrouded in shame and was literally in hiding—everyone would use euphemisms like “it’s Shark Week” or cute little little names, but no one was really talking about it.
Nadja Lossgott, AMV BBDO
We realized the power of representation and we realized that as a mainstream brand, if we were able to go out there and show period blood for the first time and then do it as a normalization exercise…it’s really important that it wasn’t done to shock. The way that we treated the idea was to treat it the same way that you would get a tissue to blow your nose. Half the world’s population goes through that every month. If we were able, as a mainstream brand, to go out in the world and say, “What’s the big deal? We’re showing it. It’s nothing. It’s cool.” We were able to shift that paradigm and open a door that could never be closed again.
So you’re shining a light on a whole bunch of different corners of the shame where it exists so you’re able to out it, talk about it and really make it visible so people could have a discussion about it and treat it as the normal thing that it is.
Martina, obviously advertising has played a role in perpetuating some of these aspects of period shame—showing people doing things that have nothing to do with periods, showing blue liquid instead of red blood, etc. Tell us more about your perspective coming into this campaign about what you wanted to change about the way these products are advertised.
Poulopati: It’s interesting because when I first came on to the business, we looked at consumer data on how advertising was performing for us and for the competition, and I think the common theme throughout was that women were just not engaging with anything that the feminine care category was representing through their ads. It was this completely fake world of women on roller blades, white pants, everybody so totally happy all the time—which has absolutely nothing to do with the reality of periods.
It was a lot about shame, and it was about creating scenarios that made women feel deeply insecure about leaks, about smells in order to then present them with a product that would cure these insecurities. To be honest with ourselves, we had to also question, are we part of the problem and are we also perpetuating this shame by constantly either playing on women’s insecurities or amplifying them to such to a large extent in order to sell a product? We didn’t want to do that anymore, and on top of that it wasn’t even effective in the first place, because women just stopped engaging with the category as a whole.
“It was this completely fake world of women on roller blades, white pants, everybody so totally happy all the time—which has absolutely nothing to do with the reality of periods.”
Martina Poulopati, global brand communications manager, Essity
So it was an ethical responsibility to do the right thing by listening to the women that buy our products and realizing the power that we have as a mainstream brand to lead the change. And it was also the business opportunity of being the first brand to be truly empathetic on such an important moment in women’s lives. I mean, we have roughly 400 periods in our lives and the fact that we were hiding it under the covers and treating it as this problem solution kind of territory—just slap on a pad for 100% leakage protection—that’s not how women should be engaging with their bodies or engaging with their cycles, which are such an important element of our lives.
When #BloodNormal came about, this idea was so powerful. It was so eye-opening, the dream of bringing this normality of periods out into the world. And we completely underestimated how deeply challenging it would be to actually bring it to life. We faced internal struggles convincing our team, the wider team, stakeholders, the board to get this campaign out there. And then it was getting broadcasters on board to change the way they look at the category, to change the things that they would previously allow us to show or not to show. Even the broadcast authorities, at least throughout Europe, have actually moved that line so much over the years.
Lossgott: It was really interesting because you would think that the whole world was aligned to be able to make it better for young girls and women that were going through the shame. We reached a point where we had broadcasting authorities of all shapes and sizes that would go: “We love what you’re doing. This is absolutely unbelievable. It’s amazing. You go. But…can you remove this scene, this scene, this scene, this scene, this scene, this scene and this scene? Then we’d be happy.” It was fascinating, because the prejudice that exists in everybody’s minds is so visceral.
We designed these beautifully embroidered underwear that looked like blood but really beautifully embroidered by a feminist artist called Anais Albar. We worked with the French lingerie company to make them, and they were these beautiful pieces of art. And even that—a girl wearing that—was deemed repulsive. And you kind of go, “Open any Sports Illustrated magazine, open any other brand…it’s just underwear!” Your prejudices are so deep set and so visceral, that you have a visceral reaction to anything that is involved in any manner around that subject matter.
We fought back scene by scene by scene by scene. Eventually we couldn’t show everything, and it was a nightmare for us. But that’s when you decide to show people that that is actually the reality and using that broadcasting message—we were banned from showing it, and we actually then decided to put the banning message on the end of the ad to show people that really this, this world is so normal, but there are a lot of people that are completely prejudiced and don’t want anybody to see this and for it to be normalized. There was real real power in that as well.
When you’re trying to break a taboo, it’s a taboo for a reason. It’s perpetuated in every way, both from a male and a female perspective. Periods are always seen as “a woman’s issue,” but period shame is everybody’s issue, and it’s perpetuated by everybody. Those are the things that you’re up against when, as a brand, you’re trying to authentically break those things down.
#BloodNormal was one of the most celebrated campaigns of 2017 and 2018, winning the Grand Prix Glass Lion at Cannes. But beyond advertising creatives loving it, what kind of response did you get?
Poulopati: The response was outstandingly positive. And it’s interesting because that was the biggest fear the organization had—what is going to be the consumer reaction? We expected it to be much more polarizing than it was.
Of course, there always will be the people that resist change. And we did have a lot of negative reactions from a small minority of people. But the vast majority of consumers were very positive about it. And I think what helped as well was that the media embraced it so positively, and they spread the message, so that even within the first couple of weeks, articles were written about it in 25 countries—even in places the brand doesn’t exist. So people were talking about it, people were treating it as a revolution. We were really pleased to see that.
“It was, by far and wide, the most effective campaign that we ever had.”
Martina Poulopati, global brand communications manager, Essity
We saw, obviously, the impact on the brand level as well. It was, by far and wide, the most effective campaign that we ever had. It had a tremendously high cut-through. People really resonated with the message, and I think that speaks to the level of emotion that this idea generates. And women were really connecting to it very, very deeply. We were hearing comments like, “Thank you, this is the first time that I feel like a brand really understands me.” So that was really amazing to see.
We launched in Scandinavia, the U.K. and the Netherlands, and it wasn’t long before many of our other brands around the world saw the success of #BloodNormal and saw how if you change the way you manage your business into being more purpose-led, you can become so much more relevant to your consumers. Since then, it’s been launched in France, launched in Argentina, launched in the U.S. under the Saba brand toward the Hispanic market. So it’s still spreading, even though it’s a two-year-old campaign by now. But it still has a life, and it’s still incredibly, incredibly relevant.
Lossgott: So many women go through such a terrible time during their period when they’re in incredible pain or even have endometriosis, and no one has ever mentioned that before and actually spoken about it. So there were lots of women who had an incredibly profound reaction to it and were deeply grateful, which is not something, in my career, I can say happens every day.
Let’s fast forward to “Viva La Vulva,” which came out late last year. Explain the concept, how it was pitched to you, and what the finished product ended up looking like.
Poulopati: The brief was essentially that we are entering the daily intimate care category in Europe. And that’s a category that has to do with washes and wipes. That’s a new thing for us. It goes above and beyond what we’re used to dealing with, which is basically periods.
When we thought about what’s the best way for us to, to enter this new category, we took a look at the category and the first thing we saw was, wow, this is a whole new level of shaming. It talks about a whole new set of problems, like treating a wash as a solution for itching, irritations, things like that. That’s not who we wanted to be. We didn’t want to be a company that sells products as a solution to a problem.
On the other hand, there were so many euphemisms. You would see flowers, beautiful flowers in front of your vagina, and women washing their bellies in circles. Which was like…how is this going to help women? They’re going to be washing around their belly buttons. It felt a bit awkward, and we were a little bit perplexed taking a look at this category and how it had been built over the years.
And then, on another piece of research we did, we also discovered a shocking statistic, which has to do with how women relate to their vulvas, which is the external part of the genitals. There was so much shame around that. There was misinformation, women that didn’t even know what a vulva is, couldn’t identify it, hadn’t looked at it in the mirror.
“We thought, if we’re going to enter this category, we have to break down taboos, but we also have to break down the shame that goes around using these products.”
Martina Poulopati, global brand communications manager, Essity
Most shocking of all was the information about labiaplasty, which is essentially this quest for what people call “the designer vagina,” which is a very, very problematic situation, massively created by the porn industry that portrays women’s vulvas as constantly fully shaved, super tiny labias—which is very unrealistic because the vast majority of women don’t actually look this way. And it creates this paranoia: “Is my vulva normal? Is it good looking? Is it attractive enough?” We’ve heard cases of girls as young as 9 years old going into plastic surgeons and getting information about labiaplasty. It is actually the fastest growing cosmetic plastic surgery in the world from the last articles that I’ve been reading. And we were really shocked at that.
We thought, if we’re going to enter this category, we have to break down taboos, but we also have to break down the shame that goes around using these products. You should be fine with taking care of your vulva, you should love it, and you should care for it. You should just feel happy about that and you should celebrate it.
I think it was this a positive spirit that the creative team brought on for “Viva La Vulva,” and it is such a feast of celebration of vulvas of all shapes and sizes. Of course, we couldn’t actually show real vulvas. So we had to deal with shells and grapefruits and conch shells and oysters and whatever else we could find to bring this shape to life. I just think it’s brilliant.
Obviously the song is absolutely magnificent. I remember the first time I heard it, I felt like it’s been absolutely written for this track and gave it a new meaning, saying to women that it’s OK to love yourself like you should and you should feel proud to be a woman. It was just magical. I just love, love, love, love, love this campaign. I’m so happy that it’s live, and it’s doing really, really well.
To hear more from this interview, be sure to listen and subscribe to Adweek’s podcast, “Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad” via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or any other podcast platform.