Depicting blood during Libra commercial does not breach ethics code, watchdog rules

Article by Mary Lloyd /
September 18, 2019 /
Click here to view original /

The body that handles complaints about public advertisements has ruled an ad campaign showing menstrual blood for the first time on Australian TV did not breach the industry’s code of ethics.

Key points:

  • Ad Standards dismissed more than 600 complaints against a Libra TV ad showing period blood
  • Complaints against the advertisement described it as “disgusting”, “offensive” and “disturbing”.
  • The makers of Libra says they launched the ad as part of a campaign to destigmatise menstruation

Last month Asaleo Care, which makes Libra period pads, ran advertisements in primetime slots, highlighting a number of ways young girls and women experience menstruation.

Scenes included a young girl removing a blood-stained pad from her underwear, and a close-up shot of a woman in the shower, showing blood and water running down her legs.

Ad Standards, which handles complaints against the advertising industry, received more than 600 objections to the advert, and has dismissed all of them.

A number of people argued that showing period blood was “disgusting”, but the watchdog found the commercial did not break any section of the advertising Code of Ethics.

Dr Elizabeth Farrell, medical director of women’s healthcare service Jean Hailes, said the idea that when a woman is menstruating, she is tainted, or should feel embarrassed when she is having her period, is centuries old, and “absolutely ridiculous”.

“It seems as if there is still a little bit of that attitude prevailing,” she said.

Complaints dismissed

Complaints about the ad included that it was “distasteful”, “unnecessary”, “offensive and inappropriate”, “disturbing” and “not appropriate for children”.

One complainant said, “Bodily secretions shouldn’t be shown on TV ads”.

Others were outraged the commercial was shown on TV after 7:00pm, saying that children may see the ad and ask their parents about periods.

“I am absolutely appalled that Libra has chosen when I was to talk to my seven-year-old little girl about periods,” wrote one viewer.

“The images portrayed in the ad are disgusting and demeaning to women,” wrote another.

“Showing girls bleeding is wrong at any time of the day,” a further complainant said.

Ad Standards, which deals with complaints made against advertisers, noted that some complainants were upset the ad was broadcast during meal time, and considered some of the images of women having their period “unsavoury”, but said “bad taste” fell outside the Code of Ethics.

Section 2.6 of the code says marketing material must not “depict material contrary to Prevailing Community Standards on health and safety”.

The watchdog’s community panel was satisfied that the depiction of bodily fluids did not constitute a breach of the code, and noted that a viewer’s aversion to blood was not covered by the code.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in gender studies at the University of Melbourne, said blood is frequently seen on TV, so the portrayal of a menstruating woman is in keeping with community standards.

“It’s a chicken and egg situation: is it because you haven’t seen it on film and TV and therefore you’ve built up the stigma, in a way that you don’t feel grossed out about the blood that comes from a knife wound?” she said.

Periods are not humiliating

While “bad taste” is outside of the code, discrimination and vilification are firmly within it. Ad Standards dismissed all assertions that the Libra ad vilified women by publicising a private matter, or humiliated them by depicting them having their period.

The panel noted the advertisement was part of an advertising campaign designed to normalise menstruation, and remove any stigma of shame or embarrassment.

The #bloodnormal campaign, as it was called, included a longer version of the advertisement, as well as still images of women dealing with their periods in daily situations.

Ad Standards concluded that, “there is no negative language or imagery in the advertisement that implies that … women in general, should be embarrassed about menstruation or that a woman who is menstruating is a lesser person.”

Dr Farrell said hiding the fact that most women bleed every month can have a negative effect, particularly on young women.

Rather than clamping down on depictions of women’s experience with their period, she would like to see it normalised it in the media.

“That’s what we women experience in our reproductive years on a monthly basis. Why should it be kept private from the rest of society?” she said.

“This is our biology.”

Advertising as activism

In its response to the complaints, Asaleo Care said it launched the #bloodnormal campaign to tackle the unrealistic depiction of women having their periods, and the aversion to showing blood as a red liquid in favour of the typical blue substance often shown in ads for pads.

According to the company’s research, three out of four Australian women say there is a greater stigma attached to periods than there is drugs or STIs, and a further eight out of 10 women go to great lengths to hide their periods.

Most alarmingly, their research revealed that 70 per cent of young Australian women would rather fail a class than have their peers know they are having their period.

In Dr Rosewarne’s view, it was promising to see manufacturers of period products take a new approach, given advertisers have historically sought to make women feel shameful or dirty about having their period.

But she cautioned that while a company might dip its toe into social activism, their primary aim is to sell products.

So why would they risk offending so many people?

Dr Rosewarne says people who were disgusted by the ads were not the target audience, and that advertisers would never seek to jeopardise their key customers.

“I don’t think Libra were for example targeting my dad with the ad — a 60-year-old white man who is not buying feminine hygiene products,” she said.

“14-year-old girls … they are the group that I think can find this message important and helpful.”