The following letter arrived recently, signed by Barbara Young and seven other "Ladies of the Office." The tone was anger.
As other office ladies were watching a "soap" during lunch, several commercials ran for yeast infections and feminine products (including one that asked if we ruin our panties every month when we get our period), and I thought to myself about commercials I have seen very recently regarding birth control protection for women, particularly sponge or foam products.
We ladies discussed the ridiculousness of the networks not to run condom ads when they run so many feminine product ads. Is there really a difference between the two? If a commercial can imply the sometimes misfortunes of having a monthly period and body change, is it so wrong to suggest the seriousness of protected sex to the viewer, especially the younger viewer?
This seems to us to be discrimination of the sexes: It's OK to expose the female but don't you dare expose the male.
Letters are revealing.
From their signatures, I could tell that Young and her colleagues were so confident and, well . . . fresh . I wondered if they'd discovered Serenity, from Johnson & Johnson.
No, wait. I was getting mixed up. The mother-daughter dialogue about being "fresh" comes in a pastel-shaded commercial for Massengill "feminine wash." The Serenity commercial offers feminine bladder control. Or is that June Allyson for Attends, the undergarments with belts and that give you "the best protection you can buy"? After all, as another commercial notes, a gal just can't have enough "panty insurance."
Based on the pervasiveness of such patronizing commercials for feminine products, you do get the impression that the biggest problem facing contemporary women is not sexual harassment or inequality in the workplace or at home. It's seepage.
Are we seeing a conspiracy against female bodily fluids? Or perhaps, as ABC correspondent Judy Muller says, it's another case of "advertisers creating a problem so they can fix it."
For a second opinion, we make a brief detour to academia.
"This reveals the second-class status of women," says Nancy Fernandez, who teaches U.S. women's history at Cal State Northridge.
Marguerite Renner, who teaches women's history at Glendale Community College, sees something ominously subtle in ads aimed at women. "Some of them start out by representing the new way of thinking about women, but there are all kinds of subtle messages woven into that that bring back the old way of thinking about women."
A woman with a briefcase, perhaps, but one still dependent on such things as scents to be desirable? "I remember seeing an ad for strawberry-flavored douches," Renner says. "And I remember thinking about that message, that somehow we don't taste good if we don't coat ourselves with strawberry flavor."
Actually, it's Madison Avenue's philosophy that leaves a bad taste. "It's one more example of the way advertising is demeaning to women and treats them in the public marketplace in a way you can't get away with for men," Fernandez says. "We should also have more commercials for jock itch."
Wait a minute. That's hitting below the belt.
Which is exactly how Young, 23, and the other Ladies of the Office feel about commercials for feminine products directed at them. She was joined by one of her colleagues, Dana M. Sims, 30, when we chatted recently at a restaurant near the Beverly Hills leasing company where they work.
They told me they were not obsessed by "panty insurance." Noticing my jaw drop, they assured me they were not radical feminists. "We're pissed-off feminists," Sims said.
"Some of these commercials," Young began, "one is for (a sanitary napkin) that has wings that go over the sides of your panties."
"It's just that we don't have any secrets now," Sims complained. "Is nothing sacred?" Take some of those tampon commercials, for instance. "They stick one in a funnel and show you how it fills up with blue liquid," Young said.
Sims recalled watching a tampon commercial with her 7-year-old son. It showed one female admiring the energy of another who has had the smarts to use the brand being advertised at her time of the month. "I need roller skates to keep up with you," the envious friend says. "And now," added Sims, "my son wants to know how he can have roller skates and all those things."
"And those commercials that have the daughter ask her mother what to do when they're not feeling fresh," Young said. "Teen-age girls don't talk to their mothers about that. They don't even talk to their girlfriends about that."
The larger point, though, is not that most of these commercials for feminine products are idiotic and unreal, to say nothing of annoying (as further evidence of that we have those spots for Monistat 7 and Gyne-Lotrimin offering remedies for vaginal yeast infections: "You can cure yourself"--after an initial consultation with a physician).