FEEDING THE SHAME
Louise Bebbington: Many women have different names for their vaginas because they are made to feel ashamed of them. You are feeding into that shame; if you really want to celebrate vaginas call it a vagina and let it smell like a vagina.
A comment (now-deleted) posted on the Facebook page created for Femfresh, makers of ‘intimate hygiene’ products for women.
Some time in June this year, while idly browsing the Interweb, you may have sailed into a little storm of consternation (and no little schadenfreude) in the Media’s online media. This was about the public’s reaction to a Facebook marketing campaign for the female hygiene product Femfresh, owned by a US household commodities giant called Church & Dwight. Femfresh sells a range of goods especially designed to keep the female genitalia fresh and fragrant. Some would argue, more fresh and fragrant than is absolutely necessary.
It all started with an advertising campaign created by Media Therapy, an ad agency with whom C&D have had a long association and which had successfully created a series of clever viral videos entitled ‘The Trojan Olympics’; this was for another of their products, the 80-year-old condom brand, Trojan. These were hugely successful with an estimated 300 million views, and Trojan became the second-most talked about condom brand in the UK after Durex.
C&D must have been delighted by a campaign that had gained them such massive brand recognition all on a paltry budget of £40,000, most of which was spent making the movies.
Then a little while ago, Media Therapy thought up what they hoped would be a similarly innovative and successful campaign for Femfresh. Despite some respected voices in the industry press deeming it a disaster, Media Therapy claim quite the opposite. Currently on their website they state that:
Over the years one product category in particular has defined itself almost entirely by euphemisms. And which category is this? The Lady Garden category of course (see what we mean). So we thought maybe it’s time to start making a virtue out of this tendency to euphemisms to stop whispering and to start shouting and yes, to stop beating about the bush. We began by asking the women of Britain exactly what it was they called their Intimate Regions. (cut to ‘street interviews’ with some 20-something girls giving their pet names for vulva).
We soon realised that everyone called it something different which led us to this idea: ‘Whatever you call it, make sure you love it’. We made some big bold press ads (cut to ‘big bold press ads’: redhead against sky blue backgrounds wearing a range of magenta, yellow or orange dresses with headlines like I love my Lala; Woohoo for my Froofroo and Care for my Kitty, Thank You), ran them in all the right places (Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, OK) created a radio programme that got people talking, put up some outdoor posters, developed an online presence to keep the conversation going. Oh! And made sure the logo was always as big as a house.
The campaign delivered 50 million media impressions, a brand growth of 17% and brought in 325,000 new users. However, there’s also a story that the numbers don’t tell because by moving the brand from apologising to celebrating by being loud and proud and by helping women feel differently about the category, we’ve helped change the culture, which must be a good thing.
So what went wrong? What turned the campaign, in the eyes of many, into a ‘bad thing’?
If we’re to believe Media Therapy, absolutely nothing. But not all agreed; Media Therapy’s bright, upbeat take on the event doesn’t quite chime with the jaw-dropped reactions of other marketing agencies or media press.
“If you are not now aware of the social marketing car crash that is Femfresh’s Facebook page I don’t know where you’ve been.”
And later, in a separate article:
“The Femfresh Facebook page has been pulled and the brand is out of its social media misery. Phew!”
Jane Franklin of FreshNetworks social media agency, posted the following in her blog:
“Whether or not it was infantilising women, or trying to break taboos is a moot point. Femfresh had a crisis on its hands”
Anna Pollitt of Stylist was less analytical, never saying more than:
“Femfresh has been getting people in a lather with its bright and brazen vaginal wash adverts… …with the strapline ‘Woohoo for my froo froo’,”
and invited readers to comment. And some Stylist readers duly responded with intelligent and outraged posts such as this:
“I’m a woman, not a child. Why on earth would I, a woman, refer to my own body part as a woo hoo or a la la? I’m frankly appalled by women who cannot, for whatever reason, refer to a vagina as a vagina. Why treat your vagina any differently to how you would treat any of your other body parts? Why are we making our vaginas a taboo? And while I am not a fan of the word cunt, being all ‘ohhh how dare you use the c-word’ about it simply gives the word even more meaning. A spade’s a spade.”
Then The Drum, the marketing and media magazine, reported that:
“Hygiene brand Femfresh, which has suffered a huge Facebook backlash following its latest advert, ‘hasn’t understood’ what social media is about.”
The Drum interviewed Tarryn Blackwood, a senior account manager at We Are Social, who said:
“It’s clear that Femfresh hasn’t understood or embraced what social is all about. They managed to undo a whole year’s work of community building and management just because people didn’t have nice things to say about them.”
Blackwood added that not only did Femfresh get rid of their award-winning social media agency in an attempt to shift the blame, but also – rather pointlessly – appealed to Facebook to make the problem go away. Moreover, by merely keeping quiet and not facing up to their problem more squarely, Femfresh were setting up a store of problems for the future and extending the limits of their negative publicity.
However in her statement about Femfresh ‘swiftly dumping’ their social agency, Blackwood was mistaken, since both Media Therapy and Lexis, another agency that was involved, have retained Femfresh as clients, although it’s not entirely clear which was in charge. Interestingly, the Facebook page had been up – and the ad campaign running – for more than a year before this tsunami of negative feedback struck. The adverse comments may have been obliterated, but the page still stands.
Then The Drum published a piece by Claire Foss, PR and marketing manager at Yomego, entitled FemFresh makes a froofroo of itself on social media. Foss perceived the hygiene company’s problem as being “not a social one – but a societal one” and thought that the campaign had a dated quality to it, out of step with the more recent rationalisation of feminism with books like Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands, Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman or Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay Why Women Still Can’t Have It All (published in The Atlantic).
As the hundreds of posts about infantilism and tastelessness raged on, some altogether more damaging doubts were beginning to materialise: was the product any good? Was it necessary? Was it, even, a health hazard? Foss wrote:
“However – the debate quickly moved on to questions about whether the product was necessary, or even safe, for women to use. In that situation – with the safety of the very product and not just the suitability of the campaign being called into question so publicly – pulling the campaign became the only sensible option.”
Foss ended with the wry observation that if any good came out of this, Femfresh will have gained access to some of the best market research possible. And that brands will need to be more circumspect about how they sell their products to women.
Eventually someone accepted that the campaign had gone bad and the Facebook page had to announce:
“Welcome to the official Femfresh Facebook page. This page is suspended until further notice. It has come to our attention that fake Femfresh pages have been created and we would like to assure everyone that this has absolutely no affiliation with Femfresh. This matter has been reported to the Facebook IP Infringement team and with legal authorities for further investigation. Please note that posts to this site will not be published.”
A moribund Femfresh Facebook page remains, although lacking the ability to receive posts. The hundreds of ‘rude’ comments have gone, although one rather vulgar example forlornly remains – unnoticed, perhaps, by the page’s owners:
Thomas James Morgan (speaking of the Femfresh model): She’s so hot I would drink the femfresh straight from her va jay jay… I don’t even care that it would give me throat thrush.
By the end of June this year, the campaign that had so boldly gone into the mini-, twinkle-, hoo-haa-, flower-, fancy-, yoni-, lady-garden-, nooni-, la-la-, or froo-froo-zone, had now truly ventured into a part of social media space where no ad agency had gone before. Some of the Facebook comments are reproduced here after Femfresh admonished their Facebook visitors, warning them not to use anything ‘abusive’ or any ‘bad language’ (such as ‘cunt’, perhaps) without clarifying whether ‘vagina’ was included in this category. These posters are definitely mad (in the American sense of the word) and they’re not taking it any more, ranging from the facetious:
Frances Donelly: Is this product aimed at children or should I have a nooni too? I’m pretty certain I only have the standard issue vulva + vagina set at present. They work fine, but do I need to get hold of a froo froo la la in order to use the Femfresh properly? If so, can I order one online? Please advise.
to the downright angry:
Anwen Grant: The word (vagina)… …is at least 7 centuries old, probably much older, and is a good, honest word. Froo froo is stupid, infantilising and made up. Which is the bad language again?
Donna Carter: OK, I find the idea of shoving chemicals up my ‘la la’ not only unnatural and dangerous, I also find it repugnant and repulsive, your use of language that negates the beauty that is the core of a woman is deeply offensive and abusive, the choice of made up words is not only bad language but also only a paedophile or child would find it acceptable. Wanna debate that?
Gabrielle Gorringe: There is nothing wrong with the word ‘vagina’! It has been around since the 1600s and describes female anatomy. It is this made-up ‘lala-fro-chuff-a-huff-a-do-do’ jargon, making the female genitals taboo subjects, that I am having issues with…
Emmy Jones: Make sure you love it by letting it be what it is meant to be – a vagina that looks and smells like a vagina and doesn’t need to be sanitised, infantilised or become the cause of shame. This campaign is vile.
Kate Paice: Look, it’s really obvious that this campaign basically fears and loathes the female body, and I just want to say: it’s mutual.
And not only did the Facebook community have a field day writing angry or funny stuff on the Femfresh page, some went to greater lengths, setting up a fake Femfresh Facebook pages, one of which posted a spoof apology:
SORRY ABOUT THE BIG HOO-HA
Our advertising has gone down
Like mouth on unkempt nooni
You might rightly hypothesise
Our PR team’s gone loony.
We’re sorry we offended you
With talk of lady gardens
For flower, kitty and noo noo
We hope you’ll grant our pardon.
You see we only meant to sell
Va jay jay cleansing potions
We did not want our Facebook page
To drown in raw emotions
From now on then we’ll always say
Vagina, vulva, labia
Right on our ads, fuck mums and dads
It’s not Saudi Arabia
So once again we’re quite contrite
We should have been more blunt.
We’ve learnt our lesson: spade’s a spade
And Femfresh is for cunts.
So what was all that about? Is Femfresh really the chemical-cocktail ‘intimate wash’ from hell? And if it is, then why do senior members of the medical profession, such as Professor Rymer, endorse it?
Janice Rymer, a highly respected professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, happily answers some Femfresh Questions in the Femfresh section of the Church & Dwight website (however these do not appear on the dedicated Femfresh website):
“Femfresh plays a protective role. Femfresh may not solve an existing problem (consult your doctor or pharmacist for treatment if you think you have an infection) but may help to reduce the symptoms caused by fluctuating pH levels.
Femfresh intimate hygiene products have been gynaecologically and dermatologically tested which means they are designed to not be irritating to this area. The washes, wipes and deodorant spray are hypoallergenic too which is great as so many products give you skin irritation.”
Did Professor Rymer get paid for what she wrote for this webpage? It’s only fair to assume that she was, since most experts are paid for such advice. But if so, how much was she paid for this crucial endorsement? Femfresh now have the perfect comeback to any critics who say that it’s unwise to spray your vulva with scented chemicals: as long as they are Femfresh’s scented chemicals, it’s OK. A senior gynaecologist says so.
But do you really need to have polyquaternium 39 up your hoo haa? Or sodium hydroxide, better known as the alkaline, caustic soda? Or will your nooni really feel loved if you squirt it with dichlorobenzyl alcohol?
With all this testing and endorsement for Femfresh products, what does the good old National Health Service have to say about vaginal deodorants in general? “If nature had intended the vagina to smell like roses or lavender, it would have made the vagina smell like roses or lavender,” says Professor Lamont on the NHS website. Elsewhere on the site NHS experts state quite clearly that if you do use them, you are exposed to an increased risk of bacterial vaginosis, commonly known as BV (not to be confused with vaginal thrush). But then they also say that if you ‘wash or clean out your vagina with water or other fluids’ you run the same risk. So the NHS message simply seems to be ‘don’t mess with your froo froo’.
Making women feel bad about how they look is part and parcel of the cosmetics industry; and the marketing industry makes us susceptible to promises that we will become more attractive to our fellow men and women. Deodorant, makeup, hairspray or gel, shampoo, perfume. You name it, they’ll try to sell you something to improve upon whatever Nature doled out to you. And the absurd thing is that they usually use a model who is far more physically attractive than you could ever be to sell it to you: “Why, look at her/him!” they wheedle, “you could be like that, too. Well – not really, but you can dream, can’t you?” Then the voice drops to a low, urgent snarl: “So buy it!” (this is sometimes changed to the utterly disingenuous ‘Because you’re worth it’).
The more we feel bad about ourselves, the more vulnerable we are to this sort of marketing. And why not? If we want to spend money to look like an embarrassing parody of a celebrity or buy something that gives us camomile-scented genitals, and that cheers us up, then why the hell not? Fine. But, as girlonthenet says, “do it if you want to, but don’t let anyone persuade you that you need to.”
During the course of what must have seemed a very long June and July for Femfresh, numerous women bloggers made their feelings abundantly clear about the product and how it was being sold. Even one who used it.
“It is completely natural to smell of something. It is natural for your vagina to leak, and it is natural to smell like… well, a vagina. It isn’t minty-fresh, it isn’t strawberry-flavoured and it certainly isn’t a fucking flower. But every single day marketing people will try to persuade you that it should be sweet-smelling, inoffensive, and as unnoticeable as possible.
So, from the centre of my brain right down to my post-wank musky-scented cunt – I implore you not to buy this shit.”
Say what? I call it a vagina mostly. Because that’s what it is. Nooni, Lala, Froo Froo? What. The. Fuck.? What marketing company did you let get drunk and play Scrabble on your asses for shitloads of cash?
I don’t have a problem with the product in theory, I should add. Hell, I’ve even used it after long bike rides when the natural bacterial order of things is disrupted. It’s gentler than soap or shower gel, and I know male cyclists who use it for their genitalia after a bike ride… …However this isn’t being sold as a genital area wash for when you natural self-cleansing vagina needs assistance. It’s being sold as a must-have item which, if you don’t use it, will leave your poor ‘froo froo’ unloved.
The main thing, according to Femfresh, is that whatever we choose to call our Peppa Pigs, we feel ashamed of them. As if we weren’t already so ashamed of them that we rip out the protective hair covering them using hot sticky stuff and do our level best to make ourselves look like pre-pubescent children in the name of ‘hygiene’ and ‘being sexy’, we now have to feel ashamed of their natural odour and environment too.
Georgina (Pinking Shears)
What is so vile about their campaign is that it encourages women to fear their own smell and tells them that no one else will like it either. Weren’t there any straight men involved in the making of this campaign (because there surely weren’t any lesbians) to raise a tentative hand and say, ‘Um, some of us actually think women smell great.’ If I wanted to go down on something that smells of Dettol I’d have sex with the cupboard under the sink.
So is the product any good? Probably no better or worse than any of the others, really. Most of them take care to be pH-balanced. They vary in price, but not by much. As Chris Barraclough pointed out in Marketing Magazine:
“The second criticism is (and one being made by many male posters) is that the product isn’t very good - “why smell like a woman when you can smell like a cheap taxi?” Many men, and most women posters, prefer women to be natural. The trouble is the Facebook page is now giving a platform to those who simply think the product is not fit for purpose. This is potentially more harmful to the brand as now Femfresh is being associated with the tacky artificial smells you get in a pub’s toilet rather than a refreshing fragrance.”
Femfresh packaging is a bit blah: pink and white with a dark blue and white chick lit-font that is reassuringly fresh and ‘modern’. The slogan was ‘Everyday – Freshens – Cares’ with ‘soothing’ camomile and ‘calming’ aloe vera. (So who needs Valium?) The not-so-wonderful colour of the product is provided by two chemical dyes, a red one called CI 14720 (Carmoisine) and an orange one, CI 15510, also known by the delightful name of ‘Acid Orange 7’. And the scent? Well, nothing to write home about. Not offensive, perhaps, but not remotely sexy, either. More Mumsnet (whose members, in any case, have mixed feelings about the product) than Jo Malone.
But if Dior or Chanel did a daily intimate wash, would the Facebook community have been any more forgiving? Not necessarily. Reading the blogs of women who eventually took issue with the Femfresh campaign, it’s clear that their outrage and scorn were directed far more at the way Femfresh marketed their product than the product itself. Marketing is what largely differentiates Femfresh from its several competitors; it is saddled with a name that seems unbearably twee in the context of post-feminism – a brand name that has been going since at least the early 1970s. But apart from re-branding, there’s not much Church & Dwight can do about this, and even if it did, would a name like ‘Vagisil’ (an existing brand that somehow unappealingly suggests a fusion of Clearasil and vagina) really be something women would rush out to buy?
Femfresh must make a difficult ethical choice here; by all means sell a vaginal deodorant or wash, but be very mindful of who you are selling it to. Pubescent schoolgirls with a poor self-image who have enough problems on their plate without having to deal with vaginal ‘odour’? The less enlightened, who might be more easily led into feeling shame about a perfectly natural phenomenon? Just what is your demographic, and to what extent are you guilty of generating that great motivator, fear, to sell your product? ‘We’ve helped change the culture’, say Media Therapy.
Perhaps, but was it really in quite the way they expected – or wanted?