Top Secret: Selling Weapons of Mass Protection

In Essays on August 8, 2013 at 5:27 am

By Jan Devereux

JanDevereuxTwenty-five years ago I had what I jokingly referred to as “a very absorbing job” working as an associate brand manager for a market-leading consumer product sold in grocery and drug stores in over 100 countries. My brand’s name, like “Kleenex” (but not), had become synonymous with the product itself, so much so that our corporate legal department dictated that every single use of the brand name, from print ads to packaging to coupons, be followed by the registered trademark symbol. Headquartered just outside New York City, the Fortune 500 company, long ranked in the top five for its return on equity, was spending about $12 million annually in the U.S. alone to advertise a product that was already a household name in several languages, albeit one that proved a conversation stopper every time someone asked me where I worked.

By all rights, I had every reason to be proud of my nascent career in packaged goods, marketing my company’s 50-year-old flagship brand, one that had, by then, won the trust and loyalty of women around the world. Yet, despite having earned two Ivy League degrees, most recently an M.B.A. from Columbia, I found myself apologizing for the awkwardness talking about my career always elicited. My social circle, which included my husband’s fellow junior associates at white shoe Manhattan law firms and Princeton classmates working as analysts and traders at Wall Street investment banks, one-upped each other at dinner parties, boasting about working around the clock on multimillion-dollar leveraged buyouts and junk bond offerings. This was in the late 1980s; two decades later, some of these bankers and their attorney-abettors might regret—even feel a twinge of shame for—the global financial crisis their firms would cause, but back then I was the one made to feel embarrassed about my line of work. 

If you haven’t guessed, the product that occasioned so much nervous laughter, so many conversational dead ends, was Tampax tampons. From February 1986 through August 1988, I worked for Tampax’s parent company, Tambrands, Inc. (In 1997, Procter & Gamble acquired Tambrands for $1.85 billion, consolidating P&G’s dominance in the segment.) Today, it’s hard to imagine how deeply closeted “feminine hygiene” products were in polite society before The Vagina Monologues (1996) and Sex and the City (1998) broke longstanding media taboos about discussing a natural process that half the world’s population experiences every month from, on average, about age 12 to age 50. But, looking back on my brief period (sorry, couldn’t resist!) as a Tampax marketing manager, I see that the (crimson) tide was slowly beginning to turn, as younger female hires like me chafed against the strict FCC standards for decency that tightly constrained what the company could advertise.

“Discreet feminine protection” was our term of art, as though we were selling weapons constructed of cotton and cardboard for women to carry concealed in their handbags to guard against an enemy incursion by “Flo.” (Hard to believe, but just this summer women visiting the senate gallery in Austin, Texas, were barred from carrying tampons inside their purses, while visitors licensed to carry actual concealed weapons were waved to the front of the long lines for faster entry.) We poured beakers of a bright blue liquid onto white napkins to scientifically demonstrate the product’s “unsurpassed” absorbency, which meant of course that it was only as effective as the competition. (Indeed, being too absorbent had become a major liability when our competitor, Playtex, had voluntarily recalled its super-absorbent polyester Rely tampon after it was linked to a deadly epidemic of Toxic-Shock Syndrome in 1980.) Since the 1950s, all tampon ads had clung to the cliché of carefree young women swimming and riding horseback during their “special” time of the month to illustrate the product’s superior comfort and convenience compared to thick sanitary pads. (Covering its feminine hygiene bases, Tambrands also sold the market-trailing Maxithins line of pads, to which I was assigned when I first started at the company, and resolving shoppers’ “brand name confusion” was at the top of my list of job responsibilities. The oxymoronic Maxithins brand struggled to compete with P&G’s new Always pads, which were equipped with innovative “wings” that better protected against the threat of “leakage.”)

When Tampax finally won FCC approval to use the word “period,” a first on network television, we never even considered showing the actual product in the commercials, or even on the outside of the packaging. Instead, a detailed explanation of how the product’s applicator operated, and where and how it was to be used, was discreetly hidden on the lengthy instruction pamphlet tucked inside the familiar blue box. As the only former English major on the company’s marketing staff, it fell to me to edit those instructions, and I labored to make them and the accompanying anatomical drawings easier for anxious novice users to follow. (Leveraging my prior experience as a technical writer, I wrote: “Step 3: Hold the outer insertion tube with your thumb and middle finger. With the removal string hanging down, insert the tip of the applicator into your vagina at a slight upward angle…”)

Assigned to oversee the test-marketing of a new line extension of plastic-applicator tampons enhanced with a “soft, rounded tip,” I found myself, a 28-year-old woman armored in an ‘80s power suit buttressed with commanding shoulder pads, debating my product’s relative degree of “insertion comfort” and its performance on the critical “gush test” (believe me, you don’t want to know!) with the middle-aged men who presided at brand strategy meetings and copy presentations with our Madison Avenue ad agency. While my direct supervisor was female, all the company’s top management and the majority of its brokered sales force were male. There was one older woman high up in the in-house legal department, a mommy track role after slaving away at a big law firm, who was kind (or lonely) enough to eat lunch with me and the other much younger women from time to time. A quarter century later, the Tampax subsidiary remains a boys’ club, with men still holding three-quarters of senior management positions.

Tampax_vs_pads_88-1The modern tampon was invented in the early 1930s by a male doctor, whose design breakthrough was a telescoping, disposable cardboard applicator that would obviate the need for women to touch themselves during the tampon’s insertion. (Thank goodness he scrapped his original idea of a metal applicator!) Tampax Incorporated, founded in 1936 by three men, thrived during and after World War II, as newly independent and increasingly prosperous women entered the military and the workforce and started to reject bulky sanitary pads. (If you are not old enough to remember the belted Kotex pads of your grandmother’s generation, watch SNL’s spoof ad for Kotex Classic to understand why many women rebelled against wearing the equivalent of diapers once fashions and lifestyles changed mid-century.) 

Tambrands always had a very high proportion of female employees—it’s just that most of them worked the production lines in one of the company’s four factories, all located in depressed New England mill towns. As part of my work on the new test product, I visited the Tampax factory in dismal Palmer, Mass. several times to talk with the men in the R&D department about such pressing issues as the ability of the tampon’s paper wrapper to withstand the wear and tear of being carried inside a woman’s pocketbook. To test paper strength, they clamped a purse containing a wrapped tampon and other sundries into the jaws of a paint can shaker, and set it to vibrate vigorously for several minutes. It was a challenge, as the wrapper had to be flimsy enough to flush away, yet sturdy enough to survive the purse punishment intact.

Tampax_virgin_88Our team did shake things up a bit with a new print ad campaign, launched in the spring of 1988, that carried the provocative headline, “Are you sure I’ll still be a virgin?” (“I really wanted to use tampons, but I’d heard you had to be, you know, ‘experienced,’” confesses an older teen pictured looking demure in her beribboned pig-tails and seersucker Bermuda shorts.) Though neither the copy nor the wardrobe was cutting edge by pop culture standards—Madonna’s hit song Like a Virgin had topped the charts three years prior—our “virgin” campaign did raise a few eyebrows at The Wall Street Journal, which ran a brief story under the headline,”Feminine-Hygiene Ad Spurns Subtlety” (May 25, 1988).

Dispelling misperceptions about tampons and virginity coincided with a greater effort to convert Hispanic women from pads, another of my responsibilities, and one for which I was ill-matched, having studied French in school and knowing next to nothing about Latina culture. These days, in America at least, it might seem that worries about virginity and tampon use are well behind us, yet Tampax’s website still includes this reassurance in its section on sex and intimacy: “In the vast majority of girls, the opening of the hymen will allow easy insertion of a tampon.” In other countries misperceptions and stigmas endure. My 19-year-old daughter’s high school classmate spent part of a gap year in Jordan, and was reprimanded for casually offering to give her homestay sister a virginity-stealing tampon.

Three recent viral videos—this gem from Bodyform, a Tampax ad that ran in Russia and a promotional video for HelloFlo, a new monthly delivery service that the video’s blunt tween spokesgirl calls, “Santa for your vagina”—seem determined to move the needle to the point where working for a tampon brand might one day be considered cool, or at least worthy of a follow-up question at a cocktail party. Maybe. In 2007, Tampax was still telling American women to “keep your period private with Tampax” in an obnoxious commercial in which a pair of female shoppers are trailed through store aisles by a mariachi band singing about the women being “on their periods.” Six years later, the company seems to have abandoned its weak attempts at humor, as this year’s bland U.S. ad for Tampax Pearl reverts to the cliché of a woman in a white bathing suit diving into a pool, making me wonder if the company thinks it’s still 1988. At least she’s wearing a bikini.

Jan Devereux is currently working as the director of external relations at a charter public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She blogs at Salutations! and Cambridge Canine.

Image credits: Bio photo provided by Jan Devereux. Tampax print ads by Ally Gargano/MCA Advertsing, Ltd.

Other references (in addition to those embedded as links):

Tampax company stats

NPR story on HelloFlo 

Comparison of U.S. Tampax ad vs. Russian ad










  1. Thanks for “gushing” about your work. 😉 I’m curious about the first word in para. 4 — did you really mean “discrete,” or “discreet”? I could imagine both being applicable in this context.

  2. Jan Devereux inserts a discreet purse-full of humor into a topic we normally keep under the table. Her discomfort (probably only once a month or so) at cocktail parties when the corporate wolves swing their you-know-whats around and she’s mockingly asked “So, Jan – what do you do?” is mimicked worldwide by guys who work in funeral homes, gals who turn tricks and any and all parking enforcement personnel anywhere. Not every Jane and Joe has a dashing career saving orphaned puppies and green heron hatchlings: many of us escape our jobs at cocktail parties (or beer joints), not wishing to remember the ghoulish things we’ve had to do for pay that day.
    Marketing in the right hands can be fun to watch as clever writers like Devereux skirt religious conservatives’ sensibilities around bodily functions and the essential paper/cotton products we use daily/monthly to sop ’em up. (How would that whole ‘abstinence’ thing work, if we’re talking about tampons?) Women of today are much more informed, demanding technology which out-performs whatever their mothers used. Still, isn’t wearing a white swimsuit smack dab in the middle of your ‘moon phase’ being a bit too much of a risk taker? Bloody well right!

  3. Stephanie: Good catch! You’re right, “discreet” is the right spelling when talking (or not) about this product.

  4. Reblogged this on Salutations! and commented:
    I’m delighted to have a piece published on Work Stew about my first job after business school.

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