The New Tampon Ad: What If Men Used Them?

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How do you sell a feminine-hygiene product nobody wants to talk about? By making a guy use it.

One day a high school boy wakes up and can't find his manhood. Literally. The family jewels have gone missing and been replaced by what girls have. Being a modern lad, he doesn't go to the doctor but rather documents his feelings about this development in an online diary, www.zack16.com, complete with video and reader comments. Each day he discovers more and more about what it's like to be female, and sure enough, after about a week and a half — or three videos — he gets a visit from Aunt Flo. You know, the monthly one — used to go by the name the Curse?

The diary appeared on the Internet in late April, without much hype, initially drawing about 1,000 or so curious onlookers to the site and its inevitable Twitter feed, where followers speculated about whether Zack16 was a bizarre new Metamorphosis–meets–My So-Called Life scripted dramedy or an ad for something. After a few reporters picked up on it, the buzz grew, and it was revealed to be the latter. Specifically, it's an online campaign for Procter & Gamble's Tampax.

"It was an experiment," says P&G spokesman David Bernens. "We're playing with it and seeing how people respond." Marketing for feminine-hygiene products always presents a particular challenge, since riding the cotton pony is nobody's favorite topic of conversation. (Unless you count some feminist academics.) Menstruation remains, if not taboo, then still pretty damn awkward to talk about. Hence the number of euphemisms this story employs.

While there are some indications that the awkwardness is starting to fade — menarche, or a girl's first period, has been cropping up in movies (including last year's Towelhead) and books (My Little Red Book, a collection of anecdotes about women's first leak week, reached the New York Times' best-seller list in February) — it's not doing so very quickly.

That's why tampon promotion still tends to fall back on two features: protection and comfort. What this has meant in practice is that if you're looking at an image of a woman in white shorts, a white skirt or a bathing suit, and if she's displaying particular athleticism or confidence or doing any kind of water sport, you're in the middle of an advertisement for a lady product. Enjoy.

In some respects, Zack16 is a different beast, much franker in that it mentions the V word and shows him trying to fashion a "manpad" and using an actual tampon dispenser. But the campaign, created by advertising stalwart Leo Burnett Worldwide, also falls back on old clichés. Our hero wears a white suit to the prom, for example. There are lots of reasons not to wear a white suit to the prom, most of them having nothing to do with personal hygiene. He says he feels comfortable because he's using Tampax. (Also, the prom's on the seventh day of his stay at the Red Roof Inn. Dude, get on the pill. You don't need to wave the red flag for that long.)

Mostly, Zack16 is an interesting exercise in finding a side door into a difficult conversation. The online videos refer to the situation only obliquely — Zack doesn't say the name of the new body part he has acquired until the very end. And P&G has no plans to move the campaign to a more mainstream media outlet. "There's always a small group of people who say, 'I don't want to think about this or talk about this, and I don't think it should be on TV at all,' " says Bernens. For now, those viewers can relax in the relative safety of Tampax's current TV commercials, in which a very pushy Mother Nature tries to ruin women's fun by forcing a "gift" on them. Those of you who want to see the really extreme end of feminine-health-care marketing can check out this Dutch ad for a girly-parts cream or this Canadian one designed to encourage regular pap smears. Warning: both are shot from the point of view of the body part Zack recently acquired.