"It’s like Santa. For your vagina!"
So goes the pitch for HelloFlo’s tampon subscription service, as said by a 12-year-old girl who styles herself the "camp gyno." Over a roughly two-minute video, HelloFlo has neatly subverted the cliches of menstrual advertising — the gauzy cinematography, the euphemisms, the omnipresent blue syrup — and it’s paid off. Since its release on July 28th, the ad has racked up over 4 million views on YouTube, in part because of its snappy one-liners and clever premise. It’s also the latest in a line of commercials that spread because even as they try to sell you something, sharing them feels almost political.
We often think of "viral" ads passing through the population like their namesake, spreading in a million Facebook posts and email threads. With HelloFlo, and likely other videos, the real strategy was a bit more centralized. When the video came out, HelloFlo founder Naama Bloom’s producers sent it to their friends in the advertising world, and Bloom herself asked acquaintances if they’d send it along to anyone they knew in media. Not all coverage, however, was equal. "When I launched my business six months ago, I got a bunch of tech press that didn't really convert," she says. "I knew this couldn't be a New York tech or a New York media story."
"I knew this couldn't be a New York tech or a New York media story."
Instead, she hoped for placement on a short list of generally woman-focused sites, particularly Jezebel. As it turned out, AdWeek bit first, followed by BuzzFeed and a host of others — including, yes, Jezebel. Many of the write-ups focused on the most quotable lines or HelloFlo itself, but they also ended up debating the feminist credentials of the video. The Huffington Post gave it a "grrrl round of applause" for not skirting "the down and dirty realities of menstruation." At The Atlantic, two editors agreed that "it doesn’t make getting your period seem icky or weird or shameful, and ... it uses correct anatomical terminology," but they worried that HelloFlo’s overall system was "infantilizing." The response isn’t so different from how we treated Dove’s "campaign for real beauty," or even a recent heart-warming Cheerios ad depicting a biracial child and her family.
In a world where advertising mostly draws suspicion and annoyance, this kind of analysis creates a potentially instant pathway to success. Bloom says she didn’t set out to make anything particularly subversive or political, but the fact is that her ad works because it gives women (and sympathetic men) a rallying point. "I think the ad says a lot more about where we're at as a society than it does about the marketers," says Occidental College professor and Sociological Images co-founder Lisa Wade. "If an ad goes viral, it means it's saying something about us."
That’s where much of the humor comes from as well. Despite some undeniably catchy phrases, the crux of the video is what Bloom describes as its willingness to "call the truth out." In this case, that means provoking a mild sense of shock — a brief "they can’t do that in a commercial!" reaction when the young protagonist demonstrates menstruation by strapping a bottle of ketchup to a Dora the Explorer doll and squeezing. Compared to riskier and more expensive TV ads, "things get sexier, things get more misogynistic, things get weirder, more satirical, violent, everything gets more extreme" on the internet, says Wade. But in this case, it’s outré simply for using precise anatomical terms. "It's kind of funny that we can still shock with the word vagina, huh?" she asks.
"If an ad goes viral, it means it's saying something about us."
Bloom says that unlike her earlier, failed coverage on tech sites, the "Camp Gyno" ad has netted her plenty of business. She’s seen growth over the handful of months since HelloFlo launched, but "I blew those numbers out of the water by 3 or 4PM after the video." Of course, with fame comes more scrutiny. The Frisky called Bloom’s ad a "feminist wet dream" but lamented that HelloFlo was going back on its frank discussion of feminine biology by promising "discreet" delivery to avoid the embarrassment of being seen buying tampons. A criticism that will, of course, probably end up driving even more people to go look.
Wade calls the ad "adorable, obviously," but to her, some of the effusive praise signals that authors on The Huffington Post and elsewhere "on some level forgot [they were] watching an advertisement whose primary purpose is making people give you their money." No matter how critical we are, though, aren’t we really just playing into somebody’s hands by keeping the conversation going?
"Yeah, I think so," says Wade. But praise and criticism could, even if they won’t change the world, make the inevitable ads around us more tolerable. And if we’re going to pass around an entertaining video anyways, we might as well talk about what it means.