I remember back in 2002 or so, while visiting my uncle’s office, I picked up a copy of the Red Book published by Orient McCann. Skimming through, I came across the Code of Advertising Ethics and among the rules there was one which stated that the marketing of female hygiene products was prohibited. I remember wondering about why there was such a restriction. The rule prohibiting the marketing of alcohol made sense to me, but why prohibit the advertising of female hygiene products when cigarettes ads were still allowed? Years later, after I entered the marketing profession, advertising for brands such as Always, Trust and Butterfly was seen in print and TV. So somewhere along the line, this restriction was removed and today you can advertise Always but not Morven Gold. Yet, when you buy a female hygiene product, it immediately goes into a brown paper bag; the only other product sold in the same way is alcohol.
Pakistan is a conservative country and we have a largely orthodox social mindset. There is resistance and opposition to polio vaccination, so it is understandable that these products cause a range of negative reactions from the public. I recall a letter to the editor in DAWN from a woman expressing her embarrassment at having to watch with her family advertisements for female hygiene products. In her view, the price she had to pay in terms of embarrassment outweighed any benefit to society. Yet the fact is that these products perform a function in society and need to be advertised and marketed as a social effort.
There is an adage in the industry that bad publicity is better than no publicity and although I disagree with this logic, in the case of taboo products, there may be some truth in the matter. Josh recently developed an ad featuring Mathira, only to get it banned. When it was banned, there was an increase in sales. A similar strategy can easily work for a lingerie brand but whether it would or is advisable for Always is debatable.
Research in Asia found similarity in the views of devout Buddhists and Muslims with regards to female hygiene products and sex-related products. In this scenario, the impact of an endorsement from a leading cleric or popular figure is immeasurable. Remember when Lays landed into a controversy because a doctor claimed that one of the ingredients used in the product was haram? The brand’s reputation was salvaged by a tactical endorsement campaign by Junaid Jamshed. This kind of ‘seal of approval’ approach by religious scholars may well work for contraceptives, especially given that a similar strategy is used to encourage polio vaccination; it may, however, not be advisable for products such as lingerie.
Advertising taboo products is challenge (even in India, which we perceive as more open and modern.) As our society becomes increasingly polarised, the question is how to move forward. The solution in my view seems to be to rely on social media. Digital allows one to restrict the communication to a specific target audience. Furthermore, if when marketing taboo products the focus is put on informing and educating the audience rather than opting for controversy, perhaps this can in the long run achieve the objective at hand.
Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan. firstname.lastname@example.org