Legal, decent, honest and banned from TV: Claire Rayner is angry about the decision to take her advert for sanitary towels off our screens

Claire Rayner
Monday 11 January 1993 01:02

In a new year that brought with it a wide array of changes in what we see on our television screens, one disappearance may have passed without notice: the advertisement I made for Vespre Silhouette sanitary towels, in which I display the product in a big studio-audience format, and the women present express their opinions. It was banned from 1 January.

The Independent Television Association (ITVA), which represents the television companies, dropped the ad after complaints were received by the Independent Television Commission (ITC), the regulatory authority for ITV.

There were 700 complaints last year about 'sanpro' advertising, of which 334 were about Vespre Silhouette. The ITVA has not banned the entire category, however, just this particular example. The ITVA keeps the reasons for its decisions confidential, but the number of complaints and their nature are taken into account. I understand that viewers said the ad wasn't intimate enough and I was too direct, and that people took offence at the format in which lots of women talk freely and easily in their own words about the product.

It was inevitable that there would be objections when, after many years of tiptoeing around the issue, the regulatory body allowed these products to be advertised on television. But are those objections the sort that should now drive the ITVA to take a step back from that decision? Just how big does a tail have to be in order to wag the dog?

There is a sizeable minority of women in this country which objects to all television advertising of sanitary products. They would prefer the fact that they have periods not to be discussed in any way, at any time, or in any form. As one woman wrote to me (the quotation marks are hers): 'We prefer to keep our 'pretend secret' about our 'bleeding weakness'. It's got nothing at all to do with prudery.'

I have not seen the letters sent to the ITC. I have, however, seen those sent to me (about 150) and know also the comments made by men as well as women who phoned in to Good Morning with Anne and Nick on BBC 1 recently when we discussed the issue. I don't suppose the comments the ITC received were all that different. The ratio of complaints to support in my mail was at first 75:25. After some publicity about the complaints, the ratio reversed.

So, what did those who wrote to me complain about? There was no single overwhelming issue, though some objected to the use of blue liquid to demonstrate the high absorbency and the one-way dry cover, both selling points for the product. I hate to think what sort of uproar there would have been had we used red. Or yellow, or green. Many said simply that it wasn't nice to talk about such things and referred to talk of female bodies as 'dirty', 'filthy', and 'disgusting'. Or: 'I didn't know where to look when it came on and my husband was sitting there beside me.'

There were a number of mothers who were embarrassed by children's questions about the product. 'Teenage boys must squirm when watching with their parents.' 'I have two young boys and the ad makes them ask too many questions.' A sizeable group worried about discussing the matter with teenage daughters.

The timing of the ads came in for some stick; many correspondents took it for granted that I decided when the ad went out. Meal times were considered particularly inappropriate. (I did wonder, does the whole population watch television while eating? And does the whole population have its meals at the same time?) However, since May sanitary adverts have been banned between 4pm and 9pm, and all day on school and public holidays.

The complaint which I took most hard was that the product costs so much ( pounds 1.79 for 12 is the price at my local Sainsbury). If I care about the poor, I was asked, how could I bear to advertise something so essential at that price, and which carries VAT as well? As one who has long complained bitterly about the level of tax on sanpro, that one did hurt; all I could say in response (and every letter writer who wasn't anonymous received an answer) was that the newness of the design and the quality of the product were involved in the high initial price, but that I hoped, like them, that wider sales would eventually bring the cost down. And that more open talk about sanpro would give impetus to the away-with-VAT campaign. That, in fact, was one of the reasons I'd agreed to do the ad.

There were, I am happy to say, a great many letters in support, which bore out the selling power of the ad. Sales increased, I am told, fivefold. The advert was undoubtedly successful from the point of view of the manufacturer and of many of my correspondents. 'Why should women be ashamed of their bodies? It's no sin to have periods. Hooray for an honest ad at last.' 'I'd never have known what a fabulous product it is without those ads - you can't just pull them out of their pack in the supermarket or chemist, can you, because they're packaged tightly? And the wing design is great - I don't ruin my pants any more - thanks for letting me know about them.' 'It's preferable to ads about men's smelly feet and stinky shirts. Keep up the good work.'

I knew when I agreed to do the ad there would be some objections, but I accepted that risk because it seemed to me to be an unusually well designed product; because I was sick to death of those coy, twittering ads in which women sing and dance, or are freeze-framed in mid dive, but never, never mention the product; and above all because I think women have the right to have clear information about a widely used necessity - at least as widely used as sexy perfume, soap powder and meat stock cubes. I've turned down more invitations to make advertisements than I can remember, but this one was so worth doing that I did it. I still think I made a wise choice.

I suppose I should be flattered to be a token casualty of the rearguard battle being fought against the prudery that kept these products off British screens for so long, when in other parts of the world such ads are commonplace. At least the ITC can tell any future complainants about sanpro advertising that action has been taken. But was it a fair or reasonable action? I think not.

(Photograph omitted)

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