Brands Off! Keep companies out of menstruation education.
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For nearly a century, menstruation education has been co-opted by companies selling disposable menstrual products. These are the same companies that reinforce menstruation taboos, by associating periods with shame and secrecy, in order to sell more products. This situation has to stop.
With Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) about to become statutory, now is the time to ensure that menstruation education is of high quality, and for the benefit of children, rather than big brands.
We want parents, teachers, schools, and the government to reclaim control over this critical aspect of a child's physical and emotional development, by committing to make sure that menstruation education becomes ad-free.
Brands Off! is #periodpositive’s latest campaign in response to menstrual product manufacturers co-opting menstruation education to sell more products. Recently, this practice has become even more concerning, as brands hide behind third party companies to promote their products under the guise of menstrual activism.
Companies send unsolicited ‘free’ samples to schools, create lesson plans that promote sales and imply that their activities fall under corporate social responsibility, rather than marketing.
What’s more, these resources don’t mention cheaper, and more environmentally responsible, reusable menstrual products, such as cloth pads or menstrual cups. Lessons often exclude boys, and some of the language and imagery used encourages girls to keep periods a secret, reinforcing outdated and unhelpful taboos that can have implications for an individual’s health and well-being. Non-binary and trans menstruators are not mentioned, and pupils with other individual needs are not supported with differentiated resources.
Schools have a duty of care to support all pupils. If menstruation education resources were integrated into the rest of the school curriculum, teachers would incorporate these needs into their planning, just like they do with other school subjects.
“When I was 13 I had my period at a sleepover and I leaked. Instead of being supported I got picked on by the other girls there and shamed. As I got older I realised that part of the reason they acted that way was because of menstrual product companies using shame and stigma around periods to sell their products. When I became a teacher and head of PSHE I realised that many of the resources used in menstruation education were still provided by disposable menstrual product companies. No other school subject is taught this way. It’s unethical. So why are we letting it happen with periods?” - Chella Quint, founder of #periodpositive (Find out more about my experiences and research on this topic here: TEDx Sheffield talk, Adventures in Menstruating: Don’t Use Shame To Sell - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kce4VxEgTAM.)
So, what’s the problem?
Under the guise of menstruation education, disposable menstrual product manufacturers are advertising their products directly to children.
We believe that the promotion of disposable menstrual products to children, without reference to reusable options (especially in terms of relative costs, or impacts on the environment, health and wellbeing) could be contrary to sections 5.2 and 5.3 of the Advertising Standards Authority CAP Code: The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing.
See the appendix below for information on how Brands Off! believes this practice could be in breach of each ASA guideline and a link to the ASA website for full details on the guidelines on advertising to children.
Not teaching about reusables prevents young people from making informed choices.
By using these resources exclusively, many schools are restricting children from learning about alternative modes of menstruation management. This makes it impossible for children to accurately judge the characteristics and performance of disposables, as they do not have all the information necessary to make a decision. Teachers in schools that develop their own inclusive resources report consistently good responses from pupils. In recent research by teachers linked to the #periodpositive Project and the Gender Respect Education Project, pupils in Sheffield focus groups self-assessed their knowledge and confidence about different aspects of menstruation as higher after participating in a series of classroom lessons targeted to address discrepancies in commercial resources than in baseline assessments.
Advertising to children through ‘free’ branded samples to encourage custom is unethical
Menstruation education should be taught without the use of branded resources from companies that manufacture and/or sell menstrual products.
Market research trend reports advise brands to infiltrate schools to create brand loyal customers from a young age. Menstruation education is the only topic that relies on branded lesson resources. Companies give away free samples along with their branded resources that urge menstruators to keep their periods secret. They are more concerned with profit than with the proper education of young people.
Young people see these logos and colours, recognise them again in shops, and that familiarity translates into brand loyalty in many cases. Reports on consumer and market insights into the global and UK feminine hygiene markets list school handouts as one of several key distribution channels.
The personal cost
There is a personal economic cost to buying something you have to throw away after each use every month. A lot of disposable menstrual products are sold by huge multinational corporations who can afford the shelf space, the eye level marketing, the magazine and television ads, internet pop ups, faux activism campaigns, redistribution, wholesaling through third-party sellers and monthly postal subscription companies, and, of course, the marketing disguised as education in schools. At schools using these companies' resources, young people are not taught how to chart menstrual cycles to budget for disposable products, how to seek out less expensive products, compare different varieties of disposables, nor investigate whether reusable products would be right for them.
The environmental cost
The average menstruator throws away 11,000 disposable pads and tampons in their lifetime (source below) - this takes up a few cubic feet of landfill per person on menstrual products alone. We are privileged enough to live in a country with the infrastructure to manage so many disposables, but it’s not ideal. Just as we are starting to make more ethical decisions around avoiding plastic cutlery, paper cups, plastic bags, and disposable nappies, we can and should also continue to move toward talking about and using reusable menstrual products. In a focus group of 16 cloth pad and menstrual cup users in Sheffield for #periodpositive, all participants expressed a desire to have learnt about reusables at a younger age so that they had the option of trying them sooner.
So what are we going to do about it?
We are campaigning for the following changes:
- Companies should remove all branding (including the brand style guide’s logos and colours) from samples and resources sent to schools as part of their social and ethical responsibilities.
- If companies do provide menstruation education support or resources, they should provide evidence that these have been created by a subject specialist, follow best practice guidelines specific to menstruation education, be required to discuss and compare all available menstrual management options, including reusables of various types and not just their own branded products, and explore advertising methods and teach media literacy criticism.
- The DfE must include menstruation education in cross-curricular aspects of any SRE curriculum planning at all key stages, support schools to move toward providing in-house resources created by trained and qualified staff, as they would with any other national curriculum subject.
- Teachers should ensure that they teach pupils to be media literate to understand how advertising works and how to compare products as consumers to find those that work best for them.
- ASA guidelines should be amended to include provision for advertising through school-based lessons or activities, and recognise branded resources as a form of advertising to children.
- Teaching and non-teaching staff should be able to share information about both reusable and disposable types of menstrual products, and a range of different brands to ensure balanced coverage. Pupils should be ‘informed, not influenced’ (see below for source). More menstruators may choose reusable products once they are aware that they can save money after just a few cycles. Pupils should also be taught how to chart their cycles so that they can plan ahead and budget.
- Schools should ensure that there are facilities for managing all types of menstrual products, that pupils and staff know where and how to access or ask for these resources in a hassle-free way, and that information on where to obtain reusables is a part of any scheme to give away free disposable products. Note: giving away free disposable menstrual products in schools is not a sustainable solution to period poverty.
What can we do?
Everyone - Sign the petition to lend your support to this timely issue.
Pupils - Challenge menstrual taboos. Be a critical consumer and be #periodpositive. Urge your teachers to provide you with fun and factual resources that are inclusive, and support your whole class to learn about periods, whether they menstruate or not. Your teachers should be giving you choices and helping you to make informed decisions.
Parents - Talk openly to your children about menstruation management, before and throughout puberty, and challenge your child’s school to deliver menstruation education that follows #periodpositive’s best practice guidelines. Ensure young people are aware that periods may be something they can choose to keep private if they wish, but it is certainly nothing that needs to be kept a secret.
Companies - Be confident about your product! If it is good enough, you don’t need to promote and market it in schools. If you are offering resources, remove your logos and branding, don’t use language or imagery about secrecy or shame, and commit to including all types of product in lesson plans, not just your own branded ones.
Teachers - We believe that supporting young people with their questions about puberty, and with menstruation management, is a safeguarding issue, and part of your duty of care. When planning lessons, follow best practice guidelines as recommended by research conducted by #periodpositive and other reputable independent experts.
School Administrators - Support curriculum and environment changes to accommodate menstruators in your building. Offer training about reproductive health and periods to all teachers, regardless of their specialist subject. No one in school should be made to feel uncomfortable or unsure of talking about periods, and training is crucial to supporting an open and comfortable dialogue.
Parliament and the Department for Education - Ban menstrual product advertising within schools and support detailed regulation guidelines. Ensure comprehensive menstruation education is enshrined within any new SRE curriculum materials, without relying on input from major multinational corporations that sell disposable menstrual products. Implement a #periodpositive policy that all companies and charities - large and small - must adhere to when offering menstruation education services.
Advertising Standards Agency - Undertake a thorough review of your guidelines and the impact and implications of this issue in schools and upon children and seek to update the ASA guidelines to include specific reference to this unique advertising method that has slipped under the radar for so long.
Thank you for reading about this petition. The ASA appendix and some further links are below.
We welcome dialogue with organisations wishing to make changes now, independently of any future government guidelines or in preparation of a curriculum review.
This is the time of year that primary school pupils tend to learn about menstruation for the first time.
Let’s make sure that the 'period talk' is no longer one-sided. Let's turn it into the period conversation.
Appendix: Brands Off! Response to ASA Guidelines on Marketing to Children
Here we respond to each of the ASA guidelines in reference to the conduct of disposable menstrual product companies who send unsolicited branded resources into schools. The following ASA guidelines go up to 16 but we’re recommending this advice carries through all education, from KS1 to university level.
To see the full list of ASA guidelines, visit the ASA website: https://www.asa.org.uk/asset/FD048220-FBD9-4E39-846B7AD71B91E3DB/
ASA Guideline 5.2 Marketing communications addressed to, targeted directly at or featuring children must not exploit their credulity, loyalty, vulnerability or lack of experience:
Brands Off! Response: Most children do not know anything about menstruation before they receive topic-specific classes at school, and according to the Sex Education Forum, only a third of schools are delivering good quality SRE. With parents sometimes reluctant to broach a touchy subject, children are particularly vulnerable to menstrual product marketing, since they may entirely lack the knowledge and experience necessary to make consumer decisions about menstrual products.
ASA Guideline 5.2.1 Children must not be made to feel inferior or unpopular for not buying the advertised product:
Brands Off! Response: While manufacturing companies may not directly state that their product is superior to others, by failing to mention or compare the full range of product options, they are implying that their product is ‘the one’ that children should buy. Schools may be unwittingly reinforcing this idea and have a responsibility to be impartial about preferred products to pupils. Any real or perceived bias could encourage young people to get the impression that their school is endorsing certain brands or products. This could result in individual children, who choose alternative products, to be teased by others. For example, if the branding around a promoted product includes imagery or wording around ‘hygiene’, ‘odour’, or ‘leakage protection’, the implication could be that if you do not purchase this exact product line, you may be judged as dirty, smelly, or liable to bleed through clothing by peers.
ASA Guideline 5.2.2 Children must not be made to feel that they are lacking in courage, duty or loyalty if they do not buy or do not encourage others to buy a product:
Brands Off! Response: When ‘free’ disposable menstrual products are given to children at the end of ‘the period talk’, they are obviously excited and happy to receive them. In many cases, this is the first time that they have had the opportunity to properly examine a menstrual product. As above, if children are only provided with information about one type - or brand - of product, they may assume that this is ‘the one’ that they ‘should’ use.
Children are likely to identify positively with a brand or product that they are given ‘for free’, which can eventually turn into brand loyalty. In fact, this is precisely why manufacturers are willing to invest in supporting ‘educational’ activities. While this might not technically break the rule about making children ‘feel a lack of loyalty’ if they do not buy the product, we think it comes worryingly close, in terms of the manipulation of a child’s emotions (and knowledge) in regard to their future purchasing behaviour.
ASA Guideline 5.2.3 It must be made easy for children to judge the size, characteristics and performance of advertised products and to distinguish between real-life situations and fantasy:
Brands Off! Response: How can children adequately judge the performance of promoted menstrual products if they have only ever been exposed to one type, or brand and may not yet (if ever) have the need to use such items, in order to gain the experience required? This is why it is critical for children to be informed about all types of menstrual products available, as well as their relative merits. For instance, reusable products tend to be reported by users as having more benefits than disposable options in terms of health, performance, environmental impact and personal well-being.
In regard to distinguishing between real life situations and fantasy, the manufacturers of disposable products have a long history of creating adverts that depict menstrual blood as a blue liquid, creating and maintaining the belief that leaks are to be treated with nothing short of abject terror, developing an entire vocabulary of euphemistic language and use of symbols and visual markers implying periods are embarrassing, unwanted and must be kept secret, suggesting that pads/tampons can somehow eliminate common menstruation-related issues such as period pain, fatigue, or low mood, and frame menstruation as a dirty and shameful secret to be kept hidden from society… Rather than busting ancient taboos and myths (i.e. fantasies) about menstruation, these adverts and their associated brands have historically perpetuated them.
ASA Guideline 5.2.4 Adult permission must be obtained before children are committed to buying complex or costly products:
Brands Off! Response: Menstruators are likely to experience over 450 periods in a lifetime. Based on current prices, disposable menstrual products could end up costing up to 40 times as much as a reusable product e.g. a menstrual cup. Are parents made aware of the relatively high costs of disposable products and the discrepancy between name brands and less expensive shop own-brand or discount varieties? Are they even asked to provide permission before manufacturers give out promotional ‘free’ samples of such costly products?
Schools should be supporting parents to talk openly about menstruation. The Sex Education Forum’s best practice guidelines for developing a robust Sex and Relationships Education curriculum recommend schools share their RSE resources with parents, and that parents are invited to get to know the materials taught before each term’s work. Brands Off! and #periodpositive urge parents to enquire about ads and promotions linked to this and other school topics.
ASA Guideline 5.3 Marketing communications addressed to or targeted directly at children:
ASA Guideline 5.3.1 Must not exaggerate what is attainable by an ordinary child using the product being marketed:
Brands Off! Response: As mentioned above, without comparing menstrual products, it is impossible for children to be able to adequately judge their relative merits, and disposable product advertising has a long history of misrepresenting periods. While it doesn’t usually take long for a menstruating child to realise that their blood is not blue in colour, or that they might not always feel like doing strenuous physical activities during their period, many non-menstruators can remain somewhat confused about these ideas, even until adulthood.
This also has implications for ‘leaking’ and promises of products that are ‘100%’ effective at preventing leaks. This not only contributes to a culture of shame and fear about leaking menstrual blood and staining clothes, but creates false expectations about the realities of managing menstruation. Leaks happen, and they shouldn’t be the worst thing in the world - a part of learning about menstruation management needs to be about managing leaks calmly and sensibly, whether they happen to you or to a peer.
In focus groups Chella conducted for her Master’s research in Sheffield in 2012, young people listed menstrual blood staining their clothes as their biggest fear about periods, which echoed the results of a larger scale piece of research in Cambridgeshire reported in 1992. Corporate messages seem to directly uphold this fear more than 20 years later.
ASA Guideline 5.3.2 Must not exploit children's susceptibility to charitable appeals and must explain the extent to which their participation will help in any charity-linked promotions:
Brands Off! Response: The manufacturers of disposable menstrual products do occasionally run charitable campaigns that use a percentage of the purchase price of their products to fund charitable work, including menstrual health projects, or may provide free products as part of a humanitarian disaster response. However, we are not aware of any company that has explicitly connected their ‘menstruation education’ promotional campaigns with such charitable work.
Interestingly, though, we have seen manufacturers position their ‘menstruation education’ work as corporate social responsibility, activism, or by implying that they are motivated to do so as a charitable, or non-profitable act that puts young people’s needs before their company’s. The fact that they frequently only promote their own particular brands or product types reveals that this type of menstruation education simply represents a marketing opportunity.
Over the last couple of years, as interest in menstrual activism as grown globally, manufacturers and their marketing teams have shifted their strategy. They have started working with independent PR firms to promote their products through a third party company which carries out menstruation education, activism-style campaigning activities on their behalf. These companies have consistently promoted only disposable brands and products, obviously don’t share the media literacy around their marketing strategies and rationale, and do not inform children about their reusable options, despite touting their work as taboo-busting on social media.
Again, while these activities are not technically breaking the law, or any advertising standards, we feel that they represent a cynical attempt to get around the rules put in place to protect children, and reveal a prioritisation of profit over the health and wellbeing of impressionable future customers which upholds menstrual taboos rather than truly challenging them.
Informed, not influenced:
“Some teachers have developed their own resources, and are already clued in to all of this stuff. Now it’s about joining it up, training others, and sharing kid-tested and expert-approved lesson activities. Rebecca Stothard, a PSHE subject leader at a secondary school in Sheffield – and a colleague at the Gender Respect Education Project run by Development Education Centre South Yorkshire – has recently stopped using branded resources at her school: ‘We felt it was unfair to our students to promote any particular brand over another. We now show a range of different products, including cloth pads and menstrual cups. We want students to have as much information as possible about all the options so that they can make an informed, not influenced choice’.”
Moving beyond free tampons:
The Gender Respect Project
Guidelines on advertising to children from the ASA:
About those 11,000 disposable menstrual products…
Chella Quint on Twitter: @chellaquint
#periodpositive on Twitter: @periodpositive
#periodpositive on Instagram: @period_positive
#periodpositive is a phrase and hashtag coined by menstruation education researcher, performer, artist and activist Chella Quint. The term is used to describe menstruation-related media, resources, and attitudes reflecting the ethos that periods are nothing to be ashamed of, should be discussed openly by all, and that menstruation education should be rigorous, engaging, inclusive, and free from the influence of companies.
#periodpositive, 'period positive' and its associated logo are trademarked and cannot be used without permission, but a free, renewable license may be requested by applying for the #periodpositive Partners Award at the #periodpositive website.
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