Why be coy? Let's just see the tampon, please: The latest sanitary protection ads are just good old British prudery glossed up, argues Imogen Edwards-Jones

'DO YOU wear Bodyform?' asked the boy sitting beside me on the sofa, after the gauche silence that followed the sanitary towel ad. 'Not often,' I replied, mildly irritated, as I left the room to make some tea. 'I'm a tampon girl myself.'

He leant back against the cushions, his index finger curled around his chin. 'I don't think I've seen one of those before,' he said thoughtfully. 'What do tampons look like?'

Anyone who has been watching television recently will have seen the launch of the first Lil-lets tampon campaign, costing pounds 3m. A swan turning into a woman and a girl biking heartily behind a horsebox, with jazzy music and a new slogan: 'They work, you play'. This is all designed to reflect the 'confident, lively personality of the brand'. Other people may have spotted the Tampax poster (part of a pounds 7m campaign also running on television) which shows a blonde lying on her side wrapped in a white bath towel and wearing a confident smile; the caption reads: 'I wouldn't compromise with a towel'.

Although both campaigns are indicative of a sudden resurgence in sanpro (sanitary protection) advertising, a market worth about pounds 205m a year, the television ads display the ultimate hypocrisy in the advertising of sanitary products: we are not allowed to see the tampon on our screens. Sanitary towel promoters are allowed to spill endless bottles of blue ink, demonstrate dry-weave top sheets, and flick wings around - with huge commercial success - but tampon advertisers have to content themselves with aspirational lifestyles, strange metamorphoses and fun tunes. The nearest we've seen to the actual article has been the recent ads where Tampax was granted permission to show its new compact applicator.

In Denmark they are predictably less uptight, and show a television cartoon with a young girl swimming in the sea. The surrounding water turns red. The Jaws theme tune bursts forth, and she is eaten for breakfast. Meanwhile, next to her and obviously more au fait, a friend wearing a tampon leaps into the surf and the shark swims on by.

In American commercials people sit around in groups, chatting about tampons, telling viewers how nice, comfortable and silky those with rounded ends are. They whip them out of the packet, as we would a new lipstick, and handle them. 'I borrow my mother's scarf but not her tampon,' says a teenage girl as she spins to camera, her hair brushed smooth and smiling confidently. No timid sell here. They mention the product and the viewer gets to see it.

But in Britain we appear to be a nation of prudes, frightened of periods, blood and menstruation - a terrible affliction borne by half of the population. The subject is hushed up and skirted around, even in the advertisments that are supposed to promote the products. Women are shown suspended in mid-air above swimming pools, playing hearty games of football on the beach or spinning across the screen in pale pink leotards in a work-out class.

Advertising sanpro products was banned on television until 1988. Even now, as well as visual guidelines, there are restrictions on viewing times. Independent Television Commission rules allow sanpro products to be advertised only between 9am and 5pm during the week and after 9pm on weekdays, half-terms and school holidays, for fear of offending viewers' sensibilities, or prompting children to ask embarrassing questions.

When Claire Rayner bit the bullet and talked about Vespre Silhouettes with wings in front of her Kilroy-type audience, there was such an outcry that the advertisement was withdrawn. 'I didn't know where to look when it came on and my husband was sitting there beside me,' said one complainant; 'I have teenage boys and the ad makes them ask too many questions,' moaned another.

'Mostly we get complaints from older people who feel uncomfortable about personal feminine hygiene, and don't want these products advertised at all,' says Caroline Crawford, of the Advertising Standards Authority.

But weren't people once highly uncomfortable about condoms until celebrities pulled them out of their packets and flexed them on television? Young studs would purchase myriad products in the chemist to avoid the embarrassment of only buying their packet of three. If, as some claim, television's portrayal of violence increases violence on the street, then perhaps its power should be used in a different way, to break down this embarrassment and so put paid to a hideous and ridiculous taboo.

Periods are hardly confined to a small group of people - every woman of child- bearing age has one every month. Yet television regulations only reinforce female paranoia. Menstruation is difficult enough to talk about without it being marginalised by the ITC. After all, viewers eventually overcame their inhibitions about condoms, why not tampons? Perhaps then it would be impossible for boys to reach their twenties without having seen something so fundamental to the lives of their mothers, sisters and girlfriends.