You dream of being a famous actress. With an Oscar or two on the shelf. Performing on Broadway. West End. In something from William Shakespeare. Bertolt Brecht. Or Samuel Beckett. However, the offers aren’t coming in just yet and the rent must of course be paid. So that’s when you accept a role in a tampon commercial.
Actually, some of the most successful actresses started their careers by promoting tampons or sanitary pads. Sometimes without having any control over their performance. And sometimes it’s exactly the other way around. Then you’re already famous and you get an offer you can’t refuse.
Advertising sanitary pads is an art in itself. Manufacturers didn’t have it easy. What’s currently happening to producers of alcohol and tobacco, happened to tampon makers in the past. Promoting these products was only allowed sparsely or not at all. Magazines refused advertisements. The advertisements that did have a chance of being accepted, all had a medical undertone.
Take Kotex’s very first magazine ad in 1921 for example. It features nurses, with an emphasis on being hygienic, safe, and doctor-approved. Immediately, the focus is on the fact that women had a problem that could be resolved discreetly. Very discreetly. In 1928, Johnson & Johnson even advertised in the American Ladies Home Journal with coupons that you could silently hand over to a shop assistant. Without having to say ‘it’.
1 Lee Miller for Kotex (1928)
The first flesh-and-menstrual-blood woman to appear in a magazine ad for sanitary napkins was Elizabeth ‘Lee’ Miller (1907-1977). And that was by accident. In the 1920s, Lee was a successful fashion model in New York. When photographer Edward Steichen sold stock of her to Kotex in 1928, it was subsequently used for a magazine ad. For sanitary napkins.
Miller was not amused – the nickname Kotex Girl would haunt her for a long time – but she didn’t have a leg to stand on, because she had signed a contract. By the way, half of America was on its hind legs. What decent woman would have thought of posing with sanitary napkins? Later, Lee Miller – who left for Paris in 1928, where she became the muse of world-renowned photographer Man Ray, and later made a name for herself as a war correspondent for Vogue – would say she was glad she had been able to break a taboo.
2 Sylvia Kristel for o.b. (1975)
Dutch actress and model Sylvia Kristel (1952-2012), who appeared in over 50 movies but is best remembered for her erotic Emmanuelle films, also signed up for an iconic tampon commercial. For Amira. ‘Why did I switch to Amira tampons? Yes. Um. Okay…’ With white (!) lipstick, La Kristel draws the answer on a mirror: Amira has a round top, unlike other tampons that are straight at the top. ‘I don’t understand why they aren’t all like that.’
Rather decent, isn’t it? Only: a few years earlier, a TV spot for sanitary pad brand Modess was completely banned from television. The television programme Andere Tijden, about forty years of advertising on TV, brought back memories. ‘It was a time when it was unthinkable to use words like menstruation and period. So the makers showed a young woman in a raincoat on a drizzly but beautifully Amsterdam square. An innocent party scene. Or not. According to the Advertising Code Committee, the lady was a prostitute.’
3 Courteney Cox for Tampax (1985)
On to 1985. The year that American actress Courteney Cox (Monica Geller in the TV series Friends) first uttered the word ‘period’ in a TV commercial for tampon brand Tampax. She was 21 years old back then. Place of action: a ballet school. Because after medical conditions in a hospital setting or museums with women dressed in couture, the sports field turned out to be a dream setting for displaying menstrual products. Swimming, archery, fencing, figure skating, rowing, tug of war, paddle boating, horse riding; there is no sports discipline that hasn’t been used for a sanitary towel commercial.
In 2022, Cox (1964) made a split-screen parody, dressed in the same kind of leotard. Now to bring attention to another taboo topic: menopause. ‘Are you still using pads?’ has been replaced in this parody by ‘Still hot flashes?’ She is not very positive. ‘Menopause will eat you alive. It’s terrible. Plus, you get bald spots and dry skin as a bonus.’ The parody can be seen on her Instagram, among other things.
4 Naomi Watts for o.b. (1980s) and Libra Fleur (1990s)
Cox’s action may have given British actress Naomi Watts (1968) an idea. She recently followed Cox’s example with a repost of her tampon ad for Johnson & Johnson (o.b.) from the 1980s. Watts was then 15 years old. Ten years later she made another tampon commercial. That time for the Australian Libra Fleur. With the post on Insta in 2023, she draws attention to vaginal dryness. The text ‘When can I start using tampons?’ has been replaced by ‘When can I start using Lube?’ Lube is lubricant. Watts is an ambassador for a line of anti-aging products for menopausal women. To break the taboo. Of course.
5 Amy Schumer for o.b. Tampax (2020)
American comedian Amy Schumer is famous for her bold approach when tackling awkward situations. Legendary is her reply to the standard red carpet-question ‘What are you wearing?’ at the 2016 Emmy Awards. Her answer: ‘Vivienne Westwood, Tom Ford and o.b.’ You go girl. Proctor & Gamble (P&G) saw the potential here and hired Schumer to promote Tampax. ‘To help break the taboo,’ Schumer explained. At Period! are we quite curious what Schumer found on her bank account for this. Never mind.
Ironic or not: in 2022, one of the reasons for the tampon shortage in the US was: the cooperation with Schumer. P&G recorded a 10% increase in sales in the first quarter of that year. Consumers could’t buy tampons at all or had to buy tampons for exorbitant prices: $16 for a box of 32 pieces was the rule, rather than the exception.
Curious which other celebrities opened up about menstruation and menopause? Click here.
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Period! is an independent, online magazine about all aspects of menstruation. Period! is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you’re suffering from medical complaints, always visit your doctor or GP. Editorial articles can contain affiliate links. Sponsored collaborations can be found in the category Spotlight. Do you have any questions? Check our contact page.
Photo ‘Hall of Fame’: Dayne Topkin via Unsplash
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