No More Taboos: Why Brands are Telling the Unvarnished Truth About Bodily Functions

Images and frank talk about breastfeeding, periods and ‘poop’ hit the marketing mainstream—like it or not

By Jack Neff | Ad Age | March 3, 2021

If the pandemic has made us yearn for one thing, it’s a good poop.

Well, among many other things. Along with far more serious issues like death and debilitating side effects, COVID-19 and the lockdown lifestyle it spawned have caused more constipation. So when Bayer’s Phillips brand recently launched an ad from Energy BBDO proclaiming, “You deserve a good poop,” it was very much of the moment, as Teresa Gonzalez-Ruiz, VP of marketing for Nutritionals and Digestive Health at Bayer sees it.

People staying home, stressed out, sitting more, eating carb-loaded comfort food–that all contributes to the constipation side-pandemic, Gonzalez-Ruiz says. Meanwhile, people have gotten used to a certain informality from a year of working at home, unshaven, in casual clothes, sometimes attending Zoom meetings. So when Energy BBDO came up with the colloquial “poop” idea, the time seemed right.

“The brand is on fire,” Gonzalez-Ruiz says of Phillips, and it’s been getting overwhelmingly positive comments since it launched the ad last month.

Bayer’s ad is among the milder manifestations of an ongoing trend toward marketers serving up the unvarnished truth about bodily fluids and functions. While in the past, advertisers might have used purposely vague representations and polite-company language in ads for intimate products, today they are telling it like it is. Gone are the blue liquids—today marketers are embracing blood or blood-like representations in sanitary protection products, nursing moms’ chafed and clogged nipples, Charmin bears’ itchy bottoms or cervical mucus.

And while a Harris Poll of consumers for Ad Age shows many people still uncomfortable seeing or hearing some of these things in ads, the trend only appears to be accelerating.

The reasons are myriad: Younger targets for mainstream brands are less likely to be offended by straight talk and big brands are increasingly competing with edgier challenger and direct-to-consumer brands that flaunt norms and don’t mince words.

From d-to-c to mainstream

One of the bigger drivers of forthrightness in advertising has been the rise of direct-to-consumer challenger brands, which make a habit of talking frankly about the conditions they deal with, says Dipanjan Chatterjee, VP and marketing analyst with Forrester.

Squatty Potty, for example, has made a small fortune selling small step stools that help people excrete better. Its video showing a unicorn who poops rainbow-colored soft-serve ice cream has more than 40 million YouTube views. Poo-Pourri similarly has built a business for its toilet spray around potty humor. And Roman founder and CEO Zacharia Reitano talks frankly into the camera about his own erectile dysfunction problems on TV to pitch his online-prescribed solution.

The boldness of upstarts eventually finds its way to bigger incumbents, Chatterjee says. For example, while Kimberly-Clark Corp’s U by Kotex began mocking the fakery of traditional feminine hygiene ads in 2010, it didn’t actually try replacing industry standard blue-fluid demos with lifelike red in digital and social ads last year. That came six years after d-to-c player Hello Flo launched its “First Moon Party” viral video around the story of a girl who fakes her first period by squeezing sparkly red paint into a sanitary napkin.

Still, U by Kotex still hasn’t put much media support behind its red-fluid demos or other online ads in the past year, and it’s been losing market share, per IRI data from Evercore ISI. And the Harris Poll shows why putting more media weight behind those ads might be a bad idea. As natural as red demos may seem, they’re far from a safe bet for certain demographics. Showing actual menstrual blood, like period underwear marketer Modibodi has done, goes over even worse with older audiences.

By a 54% to 46% margin people in the Harris Poll disagreed with sanitary product advertisers using red rather than blue fluid to simulate blood. They disagreed with showing actual menstrual blood by a 71% to 29% margin. Perhaps surprisingly, females are more opposed than males to both red fluid or blood in ads.

Then again, advertisers using red fluid did get majority support among people 18-44 overall—who are the primary consumers for the brands in question—and from men up to 54.

Straight talk works better

Procter & Gamble Co. hasn’t embraced red fluid just yet, but it is down with more direct approaches in advertising. Its Tampax brand last year turned to Amy Schumer for a series of ads after Melissa Suk, VP-North America Tampax and Always, saw the comedian joking about tampons on her Netflix comedy special.

Schumer has appeared in several Tampax ads, including a TV spot where she talks in a women’s room about what the right tampon size is for her, discusses with a gynecologist tampon ingredients and does mall-intercept interviews about the facts of life with teen girls and boys.

Tampax has spent more than $5 million on Schumer’s straight-talking ads on TV with additional online support, and the impact appears quite positive. The brands sales fell 6% in the second quarter last year vs. the prior year, per IRI. But since Schumer’s ads broke in July, Tampax sales have risen 5% in the third quarter, 4% in the fourth and 8% in January.

“We are excited to continue on our mission to make period conversations as normal as periods,” says Kristen Haun, global Tampax and North America Naturals senior director. “People are inserting themselves in the conversation by not only sharing their personal stories, but also asking questions and letting us in on the secret that they, too, believed some of the crazy myths out there.”

Frida Mom finally gets its message out

Another sign of growing acceptance for the direct approach comes from Frida Mom, which went from having an ad for its feminine hygiene products refused by ABC for the Oscar’s broadcast last year to having a different ad greenlighted by NBCUniversal for Sunday’s Golden Globes. True, the ad was different. But so were the network decision makers, says Frida Mom CEO Chelsea Hirshhorn.

Last year’s ABC-rejected ad for post-partum products showed a woman wearing her hospital-approved mesh underpants sitting on a toilet and struggling to change a sanitary napkin. This year’s NBC-accepted spot also spent lots of time in bathrooms, but focuses on the trials of breastfeeding in not-quite-graphic detail, partially showing breasts with blurred nipples, breast pumping and milk spurting. An extended cut for social media shows full frontal nudity and more graphic scenes.

“Large consumer products behemoths have a harder time I think unlocking that authenticity,” Hirshhorn says. She blames the legacy of “older grey-haired men in the boardrooms making decisions that were not the reality of what their consumers were going through. The more progress we make with women as business leaders, thought leaders, executives, there’s a heightened sensitivity to that reality.”

At NBC, “there were a lot of women in that boardroom making those decisions,” Hirshhorn says. “We had to blur some nipples. We had to cut and splice some scenes. But at the end of the day, we wouldn’t do it if we weren’t unequivocally comfortable with the message being sent.”

And while last year’s Oscar refusal led to speculation that Frida Mom was playing for shock value and the old “rejected ad” publicity game, Hirshhorn says the brand’s willingness to work with NBCU to make edits and meet broadcast standards shows otherwise.

It’s not strictly an old media/new media issue. Hirshhorn notes that when Frida Mom posted its extended cut on LinkedIn last week, bare breasts and all, the social network’s algorithm quickly flagged it and took it down, though it was restored after Frida Mom contacted LinkedIn.

And it turns out guys are largely OK with breasts in ads. The Harris Poll shows men, even over 65, are more comfortable than women seeing either partially or fully uncovered breasts in ads about breast feeding. Men by a 51% (comfortable) to 21% (uncomfortable) margin were OK seeing partially uncovered breasts in ads. Women were comfortable with it by only a 48% to 28% margin. The rest of each group said they could “tolerate” it.

Even men over 65 were comfortable with partially uncovered breasts in ads by 39% to 24% margin. But women over 65 were firmly opposed, with 17% comfortable and 68% uncomfortable. Similar breakdowns occurred with showing fully uncovered breasts, but with far less acceptance. Only 37% of people overall were comfortable with that vs. 41% uncomfortable.

Comfortable with ‘imperfection’

One thing people in general are comfortable with these days is “imperfection,” says Gonzalez-Ruiz, and that means openness to more direct talk. Millennial and Gen Z women often aren’t shy about telling their dads they’re going to the store to buy tampons, she says, though there’s actually more taboo around talking about constipation.

But the reality is that, whether they’re at ease talking about it or not, a good poop makes a difference to people, says Energy BBDO Co-Chief Creative Officer Pedro Perez. “We know that at the end of the day, if you have a good poop, you celebrate that. That’s how we should be. We want to normalize that feeling. It’s OK to talk about.”

Whether the frank approach works for a brand depends on whether it’s in character, says Leslie Zane, principal of Triggers Brand Consulting. Potty humor has always been part of brands like Poo-Pourri and bidet retrofit kit Tushy, Zane says. “Our research shows that explicit articulations can still be polarizing for mass audiences, particularly if the attitude doesn’t fit with the brand’s equity. For example, if a brand had a serious tonality before and suddenly used the word ‘poop’ in its communications, that would likely be too big a leap.”

Gonzalez-Ruiz says Phillip’s heritage of ads dating back to the 1980s where, for example, a wife interjects “You’re talking about constipation” into a dialog with hubby, makes “poop” less of a leap.

The word has never been banned on TV, even if it’s not universally OK with folks in ads, according to the Harris Poll. People overall by a 61% to 39% margin believe advertisers should be able to say “poop” in ads for relevant products like laxatives and diapers. Males by a 68% to 32% margin, were more likely to be OK with it. And majorities in all age groups under 65 gave their blessing. But “poop” lost by a 52% to 48% margin among people 65 and up.

They traditionally might be seen as the core target for Phillips, but not for this particular ad, which aims at younger folks who, thanks to the pandemic, may be discovering constipation for the first time.

Read the full story at Ad Age.