21st: The bleeding edge

When it comes to creative Web marketing, tampon manufacturers lead the way.

By Jenn Shreve

Published March 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I'll never forget the first time I used a tampon: It was an eighth-grade field trip to a water slide park, and I was bleeding like a wounded soldier. I knew I had two choices: Suffer all day, legs crossed, while my friends did some serious frolicking -- or use a tampon.

Before changing into my swimsuit, I went into a stall to study the hard-to-read, clinical-sounding instructions that came with the box. What the hell were they talking about? Several of my friends were veteran tampon users, but I was alone in that bathroom, fumbling with the cardboard applicator and wincing through the painful insertion.

This memory came flooding back to me when I recently stumbled upon the Tampax Web site -- a treasury of useful information and support for young women undergoing such rites of passage. If only, I thought, I'd had a place like this to turn during the awkward years of puberty.

Tampax.Com is one of the best company sites on the Web. Lots of corporations talk about using the Net to go beyond traditional advertising; Tampax -- along with Kotex, which has built a similar site -- shows what that can mean.

Tampax.Com is split into two main spaces: T Room, a site for girls ages 14 to 16 (though, based on the content, I'd lower that to ages 10 to 14), and the sleek T Lounge, for worldly-wise teenagers (it's ostensibly aimed at women ages 18-24, but it reads just like Seventeen magazine).

T Room is hosted by a fictional character named Tina, whose bedroom serves as a front door to content like fashion critiques, music reviews and a monthly diary. Tampon-shaped navigation bars guide you to everything from issues-oriented articles to creative things to do with tampons. The content has a clearly feminist bent, tossing aside the Spice Girls for strong-woman icons Mary Lou Lord and Ani DiFranco.

For the T Lounge's older visitors, Tampax provides everything from relationship quizzes to monthly themed articles on careers, friendship and beauty. "Relax, put some tunes on the stereo and get ready for some truth!" advises one editorial. The advice questions are frank about sexuality and menstruation. Posts in the moderately active bulletin board range in topics from eating disorders to how to have "real sex." And when you click on a button to redecorate the entire site -- velour, contemporary, outdoorsy or lava lamp -- it'll remember your preferred style on return visits.

Kotex's site, particularly the area called "Girls Space," is similar to the T Room, though its design is less sophisticated -- opting for a cute "girly" lavender background and pull-down menus instead of the hip navy hues and mouse-activated headlines of Tampax's site. And the majority of the content deals with the rapidly changing bodies of pubescent girls, not music and fashion.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

But when it comes to educating young women about tampons and menstruation, Kotex shows a far better understanding of its readers' fears and desires than Tampax. For example, Tampax's sterile, cold treatment of anatomy ("The urinary opening, vagina, and anus are located quite close together. Solid waste material contains many bacteria") relies on bland medical diagrams. Kotex shaped its content by looking at the questions young girls ask in calls to its hot line. The site uses easy-on-the-eyes cartoonlike illustrations and actually walks you through self-exploration: "You might wish to consult an illustration, or better yet, use a handy dandy mirror to hold between your legs. OK, OK, this might feel a little bizarre at first, but jeez, how else are you going to learn about you?"

Both the Kotex and Tampax sites provide high-quality information in impressive depth. And because they're online, they offer personal interaction not possible in a classroom or a book -- along with anonymity for the shy or embarrassed.

"People can get very personal information whenever they want, wherever, so they can find out how their body works without asking mom or dad," explains Judy Barton, account manager at Organic, the company that built Kotex's Web site.

Cimeron Dunlap, Organic's director of marketing, adds, "It's meant to make them comfortable, and not feel queasy about the topic of menstruation. They would not have that if they saw a commercial on the TV. It's a much deeper relationship that's available on the Web."

The designers of both the Tampax and Kotex sites say their primary objective is educational: "It's all about empowering girls and making them feel good about their body," explains Barton.

Of course. But these are businesses, too: Isn't the sharp design and useful content just an underhanded way of marketing a product to young girls who aren't savvy enough to know when they're the targets of "branding"?

One of Kotex's more nifty interactive functions is clearly meant to push product: pull-down menus where you enter information about your period to calculate which Kotex products best match your "flow" and "lifestyle." And, of course, on both sites, all pages lead back to tampons -- an article may begin discussing boyfriend problems, but rest assured it will end with product placement.

Tampax offers free samples throughout the site. "What we want them to do is request samples. This is a company whose business is selling products and helping young girls to make the right decision," says Susan Goodman, marketing vice president at Think Inc., which developed the Tampax site.

So isn't Tampax just using its inviting content to close a sale? Sure -- but they're also providing a valuable service: informing young girls about their bodies in a cool, safe environment.

"This is not Joe Camel. This is something that's important for young girls, for their self-image, for their health, for their lives. We're creating a forum for them to talk to each other and get much needed information in a comfortable place as opposed to getting the wrong information, feeling shameful about it," says Megan O'Connor, accounts supervisor at Think Inc.

And she's right. Tampons are all pretty much the same, and they are necessary -- unlike cigarettes, soda pop and other junk marketed to young people on the Web. These companies have provided a public resource; there's nothing wrong with buying their goods in return.

"We try not to dupe [girls] into something that they're not interested in. It doesn't take any underhanded efforts. It's very focused on information and education. If we provide people with that, they will look at Kotex and say, Wow! They're the ones that gave me that information and helped me," Barton says.

It's a smart strategy -- one that demonstrates how commercialism can move beyond the exclusively self-serving marketing message. Wouldn't it be nice if other companies followed that lead? Imagine if Coca-Cola used its site to promote a social cause. Or if Budweiser hosted a discussion on the hazards of binge drinking . Or R.J. Reynolds offered education on cancer risks.

Well, OK, we won't hold our breaths for that. But there's plenty more room for corporate Web sites to go beyond traditional marketing. No one can say that public service and product promotion are mutually exclusive -- not after what Tampax and Kotex have done on the Web. I only wish their sites had been around when I was 13.

Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

MORE FROM Jenn Shreve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Advertising Business