There's been a lot of talk about innovation, maybe, maybe too much talk. While no one tells us it's easy, the fifth column cheerleaders, pundits, and bloggers do their utmost to make it sound fun. But innovation (whatever the hell it is) can often be very uncomfortable. If I were hawking innovation-boosting t-shirts (and who knows, if this column thing doesn't pan out, I might just), mine would proclaim "If it doesn't feel weird, you're not doing it right."
Let's take this ad for Lunapads:
When I saw this ad, I was exceptionally uncomfortable. [Note to empathy-free women and overly-enlightened men: you may not feel uncomfortable. But I did.]
But after emitting a sub-audible "ecch" and setting the ad aside, I paused and reflected on my reaction. Clenching ever so slightly, I went back to the ad and looked more closely.
There are so many signals here that buck the mainstream norm for "feminine hygiene." Where current imagery might feature billowing swathes of diaphanous fabric, smiling models and free birds winging on high, here we have two enthusiastic, potentially sexually aggressive women. Instead of handling the product discreetly, they are thrusting it towards us in celebration? Challenge?If they were selling, oh I don't know, maybe ice cream, I'd find this pretty hot. If I'm accurate in picking up (subtle for someone with my too-too-straight life) lesbian cues, then even more so. I'm kinda freaked out by these women, but mmm, sexy. But oh, no, it's not ice cream. It's definitely not ice cream. It's menstrual cups (umm, what?) Good Lord, boys, head for the hills!
The next transgressive element is the crafter pad holders. These women aren't the retiring sort, and they aren't going to thrust just any pad holder at you, it's going to be an Etsy-worth customized pad holder (but one you could probably make yourself if you had the pattern and a bit of time). Yep, we've got feminine hygiene accessories - and they aren't taking a back seat, nosiree.
And what about the product? What exactly are menstrual cups? Wikipedia explains it all: "Unlike tampons and pads, the cup collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it." Well gosh, that's not how it's supposed to work! I'm clearly (if you haven't twigged to it by now) not a companion of Aunt Flo, but I'm figuring absorption conceals and does other built-in mess management. Collection can't help but displaying the full details of the situation.
If I'm involved in the design of menstrual products, I've now been significantly challenged:
I've offered an extreme example here; a category that isn't part of everyday conversation, a behavior that separates genders, generations, and other cultural groups. I'm giving you an unvarnished peek into my own naivete and typical-guy fear bullshit to make the point. In our work with organizations, we often encounter this discomfort, albeit in a more subtle form. And in being more subtle, these biases (which present as discomfort) are harder to identify, work around and extinguish.
One of the coded phrases we hear is "That's not our customer." This is the designer's version of "Some of my best friends are Jewish" - always said politely, earnestly, and with an intelligent conviction that purports - but ultimately fails - to dilute the harmful closed-mindedness. Of course companies have segments to market to and design for, but the opportunity to spend time with a real person and explore at how they are conceiving and solving (or not) problems, that's a gift.
But this is where the discomfort causes problems: Unwrapping this gift, we see that real people don't use the proper terms for our features, don't understand how our products work, and don't actually care about what we want them to care about. And so we marginalize the messenger instead of embracing the message.
Imagine being a designer, marketer, or other working at a major CPG, where there's already a great deal of cultural momentum around improvements to current solutions for tampons and pads (New packaging? Better applicators? New fragrances? Cost reduction? Green initiatives? New branding to target emerging segments?). Of course people who work in this category already know about cups, but let's pretend that they don't (we're working with metaphors here, people!). How does the organization react to this? Do they marginalize the solution ("Cups don't work")? Do they fall back on prior work, relevant or not? ("We launched a cup solution a few years ago but there was no margin")? Do they marginalize the target users ("Those people aren't our customers")? Consider the eureka-evoking experience of discovering a new customer attitude and uncovering a new behavior, and then coming to grips with the opportunity this affords. That forces everyone in the organization - at some level - to examine their personal and organizational values, hidden beliefs and unarticulated expectations around the fundamentals that get them up every morning. You're damn skippy that's going to be uncomfortable.
Being a consultant, I witness some startling exchanges as this discomfort starts to bubble up. The most delightful is a sneaky yes-and switcheroo, where what we're explaining is repeated back to us with some willful rewriting. Steve: Now we saw a lot of folks who were really aware of germs in the environment but had trouble taking steps to protect themselves because they didn't want to look like they had OCD. Client: So, for those OCD-customers...
While frustrating, these are small moments of failure and they are natural. It's a bigger issue than whether or not I can persuade an individual, in the moment, about OCD or menstrual cups. These small moments of failure are indicators of issues that are deeply embedded in the organizational culture. Addressing this discomfort (and the limitations it gives rise to) is a process. Recognizing these breaks with reality takes practice, advocacy and leadership.
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The only thing -- and it may be quite a big thing -- that you missed is that these ads appear in Bitch and Bust magazines. More of an idie grrl power type of magazine, not Martha Stewart Living.
While the people behind the brand may be making some funny choices, and the photograph has some problems, it is aiming for a vernacular suitable to the context.
(Or perhaps this comment is the long form of your phrase, "That's not our cutomer.")
Anyway, I enjoyed reading this.
and I LOVE that you mention the girthy ads; I use that in a a lot of presentations when I speak about social norms and no one remembers them, usually. That was just so strange and dramaticly WTF, that I think it makes a great story!
Really wish you guys finished the article. Have you heard of Shirley Sherrod? Maybe try the two paragraphs under the bullet-list?
Great article. The ads remind me a lot of Dell's Della campaign.
Aside from the obvious, it is really amazing to me how in men's marketing "uncomfortable" and humorous is a pretty easy transition like Old Spice, Axe, or even hot dogs (remember Ball Park's girth campaign).
This ad fails on so many levels, the least of all is the psychological disconnect. That's how people hold something they view disgusting.
I'd be very surprised if the creators of this ad were "comfortable" let alone trying to really empathize with their target.
i too have looked at these period ads from the 70s into today, and what is most interesting about the style+message they display: is weirdly related to the feminist movement.
When (a decade) is most high for women to be proactive as working professional careers... the ads were more in favor of the latest and greatest types of products (in those days - tampon)... but towards the end of the 80s into the 90s, as women moved away from the career returning to housewives the ads went back to pads as the "its better for you"....
so the question i like to ask, when was this ad made, what cultural audience it is for, and then reflect it with our understanding of women's political in our social life.....
- while some women may feel so uncomfortable to look at it.... it made me laugh so hard and then FB the picture to all my friends. :)
If we are uncomfortable about our periods, we will buy sanitized, socially approved products.
These products are for women who are ready to get past the uncomfortable, socially prescribed "ickiness" of bleeding every month and break through a *lot* of cultural stereotypes.
They are not selling something like ice cream. They are selling a product that, in some form, a woman must buy. They are trying to appeal to the knowledge that most women have that, really, this happens every month, let's just get over it...
This product is not for everyone, but a woman who is ready to hear this message will **hear** it and be totally ready to buy this product.
I feel designers haven't approached this issue well and we are
in the prehistory of this kind of products. Every time I use the cup I start to brainstorm how this product could be more efficient. I still can't believe that I used tampons for so many years, it's a waste and it's dirty. We have to be open to talk about this cultural problems in a more pragmatic way to find products that are truly better instead of products that obey obligatory social rules.
You're missing the point and reading too far into the "maleness" of the perspective. That was the whole point of the matter, that as a male he would be potentially working on something that he has no experience with personally or professionally, and even being presented with it makes him uncomfortable due to where his comfort zone exists.
I think this was a great article, getting some very interesting points across. Were the situation gender-reversed with an in your face male genitals/hemorrhoids/prostate ad, with review written by an equally foreign-to-the-concept woman, you might see men taking your same stance, Irene, so I can see where you might be disillusioned by someone's reaction over something that's well within your comfort zone, and not theirs.
Moral of the story? Super uncomfortable article. Good job going after it.
You seem to be completely shocked by this product (which has been around for a while, and some of my friends swear by) by assuming it must be uncomfortable, and worse, would somehow show us something we didn't want to see.
The fact that you were a male, and making these confident, matter-of-fact statements about something of which you had no experience was very distracting to me from your overall point.