Marketing tampons: From Brenda Vaccaro to 'Flo'

Source: Hello Flo

The business of feminine products is, well, recession-proof. However, the only thing less comfortable than a teenage girl grappling with her first period is ... watching commercials about it.

Enter Flo. Not the Progressive Insurance pitchwoman. No, this Flo is a tween who gets her first period at camp and sees it as an opportunity to go from loser to egomaniacal leader.

"I became the Camp Gyno," she says on a YouTube video which has topped 3 million hits. "This is your life now," she tells one fellow tween girl experiencing those first pangs. And I thought life was tough in "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."

Credit the young actress, identified as Macy McGrail, with a performance worthy of Abigail Breslin. However, the video deals bluntly with menstruation, including a rather graphic simulation involving a "Dora the Explorer" doll. If this is something you consider inappropriate, especially at lunch time—or in the office—consider yourself warned. (Click here for the video)

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Flo is the face of a new company called Hello Flo, a monthly subscription service selling only Tampax and Always pantyliners (both owned by Procter & Gamble). It hopes to recruit girls at the beginning of a decades-long cycle of buying feminine products with Period Starter Kits, which come complete with candy.

The site charges $14 to $18 a month for the service, and company founder Naama Bloom told The Verge that she sees plenty of room for growth.

"I've certainly had some men ask me what I would sell next, as if half the world's population that menstruates once a month isn't a big enough business," Bloom said. "There are men out there who don't think this is a very big market, but it's $8 billion a year in the U.S."

Her straightforward hilarious take on "that time of the month" from a tween's perspective is the latest evolution in marketing these products. Advertising a solution to such a universal need has always been awkward. Back in the '80s, Tampax Super Plus ads didn't even show the product. Then there were ads demonstrating the products with blue liquid.

One breakthrough was in 1982, when actress Brenda Vaccaro risked ridicule by doing commercials for Playtex Tampons. "It has a plastic applicator as opposed to cardboard," she said. "I think that's important."

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No one talks about the science of these products anymore. These days, they are advertised through humor. One of the most hilarious has been from U.K.-based Bodyform. It posted a YouTube reply to a man who complained on Facebook that the company's products were ridiculously advertised, showing women taking part in all sorts of activities because they were wearing Bodyform's feminine products.

Faux-CEO Caroline Williams (pouring herself a drink of blue liquid), admits he's right. It's all a lie. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but there's no such thing as a happy period," she confesses.

Williams then reveals archival material showing the failure of past attempts to advertise the truth about menstruation. That video has topped 5 million hits since posting last October.

Sometimes, though, the most successful marketing may not need to show the product, have blue liquid or involve any dialogue at all. This recent Russian commercial for Tampax promoting its "leak proof" capabilities involves two women and one shark. While being a tad graphic, it gets to the point quickly. If that doesn't move product, nothing will.

—By CNBC's Jane Wells. Follow her on Twitter: @janewells