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We've come a long way

I was reminiscing the other day about an unusual and in a sense landmark decision I was once involved in when I worked in the marketing department of a multinational pharmaceutical and personal products manufacturer. A couple of the women I was chatting with encouraged me to recount the episode here.

During the early 1990s I was brand manager for Ireland’s leading sanitary towel brand, a product that commanded an overwhelming share of the Irish market and was manufactured in Dublin, thus providing significant employment locally. This brand was the default choice for Irish woman for decades, the package that hundreds of thousands of mothers discreetly handed to their daughters in a rite of passage akin to Dad buying junior his first pint.

Tradition, word of mouth and lack of an alternative had ensured that this brand held a seemingly unassailable position and it was at the time of my becoming involved with it one of Ireland’s top twenty brands across every category. Yet in many ways it was the brand that dare not speak its name. However, trouble was brewing. We were no longer living in two channel land and alien brands of towel and tampon were being advertised on foreign channels making lofty claims of unencumbered roller skating and dance filled days.

Here in Ireland there was a ban on the television advertising of these “personal hygiene” products as to do so was deemed inappropriate. Fearful that a generation of young woman would learn of alternatives and abandon their mother’s and grandmother’s favourite we attempted to break this taboo.

I remember attending RTE copy clearance meetings, awkward, uncomfortable sessions facing a panel of squirming men of a certain age and disposition who regretted turning up for work that particular day. We scrutinised the proposed script line by line, crossing out our tentative boundary-crossing suggestions as we went. No red liquid – blue if you have to show liquid at all, no overt showing of the offending item, sensitive treatment of this shameful reality and a strict ten o’clock watershed. The resulting ad was so innocuous as to be almost invisible but it was approved. After all the committee had to demonstrate pragmatism; we had money to spend and times were tough in TV land.

The day after the first broadcast the letters began to arrive and worse still the phone calls. Every single one was from a shocked and offended woman and all were directed my way. I recall spending almost an hour talking down one hysterical woman who explained that her husband could no longer go to the pub to watch the football in case one of these hateful ads would be broadcast; that they could no longer watch television as a family as they had a teenage boy. She made it quite clear that this was ALL MY FAULT. The letters were rambling and irate. One enterprising bunch had photocopied a crude drawing of a television set and scrawled their message within – I received dozens of them. It seems comical now but it was rather unnerving at the time.

We have come a long way since and advertising for sanitary towels and tampons is commonplace. However, some rules still apply.  I am conscious that some people may feel that this is reasonable; that these intimate products should not form part of the mainstream. Yet would we apply the same rules to toilet paper? Should there be a watershed before which this distasteful product cannot be discussed? Should we employ coy euphemisms, extolling the benefits to users who yearn to skydive and skate with confidence, knowing that their bottoms are pristine?

A year or so after this bizarre chapter in my working life I had moved on – a circumstance unrelated to the opprobrium showered upon me by a faction of “Mná na h-Éireann“.  On one particular occasion I was passing through a small town on my way to Wexford when I got caught short and my period was upon me. I popped into the local grocers, handed a pack of sanitary towels to the taciturn man at the register and watched in amazement as he wrapped the package in layers of thick brown paper, secured with metres of sellotape. The whole shameful exchange was completed in silence and I’m sure I caught him suppressing a shudder. Perhaps certain parts of Ireland weren’t ready for innocuous blue liquid and skateboarding woman after all.

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