Helen Purves All you need to know about Helen Purves. And, indeed, much more.

16Aug/124

Modern feminism, or: Up your froo-froo, Femfresh (no thanks to the ASA)

Femfresh poster: Woo Hoo for my Froo FrooI've never had much to do with hardcore feminism. Frankly, I've no need to. I'm paid as much as my male equivalents; I quite happily work in the tech industry attending events alongside groups of many men without fear of intimidation and have never felt that my gender has adversely affected my life at all.

Sure, men have tried to belittle me. But I have an automatic look that gets released on any idiot trying to pull the "look at the silly little woman who has no brain" gig. I I've to call it the Whatever Assumption You're Currently Making, Stop Making It Unless You Have No Fear For Your Personal Welfare look (it's close to my You Obviously Have No Particular Emotional Attachment Towards Your Genitalia look).

Despite spending a great deal of time with Misogynist Grampa, I was primarily brought up by my grandmother and mother - for Pratchett fans, my father fondly and accurately describes the latter as a cross between Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax. You don't mess with women in my family. We won't scream at you, or get violent (unless you're physically attacking us - in which case, watch yourself); you will be subjected to either sub-zero frostiness, wry and cutting wit, or overbearing politeness which suddenly makes you feel like a complete bastard. That's the aim, anyway.

As a result of my tendency to disperse uppity males much like Fairy Liquid dissolves bacon fat, I've not noticed enough inequality in my daily life to remember any of it. Most of the tropes I've encountered about women should act/look etc have come from other women. Therefore most of the "feminism" I comes across severely annoys me due to its illogical nature.

Women's magazines? They're commercial entities; if stupid idiots didn't buy them, they wouldn't exist. Girl Geeks? If you stopped infantilising yourselves and defining yourselves by your gender ("Boy Geeks", anyone?) by using pre-existing gender stereotypes in your marketing, like cupcakes, knitting and liberal sprayings of the colour pink, perhaps your male colleagues might take you more seriously. Crèches at conferences? Jesus Christ, get your bloody partner to hang on to the baby for a bit - if you decide to have children, then you (both of you) also automatically make the decision to make sacrifices for those children, whether you want to or not. And I'll believe your annoying spiel about your kid becoming an astronaut when I see it, as your child is statistically far more likely to become a smug, self-entitled douchebag like yourself.*

However, I draw the line at pure misinformation. That's why I loathe and despise Femfresh. Their range of "feminine hygiene" products are not only loathsomely packaged, but they're also 100% unnecessary and, according to your local GP, potentially harmful. Vaginas are self-cleaning. They only require regular washing with water. Introduction of foreign substances can cause horrible things: yeast infections like Thrush if you're lucky, and worse if you're not.

The whole thing - the fact they even exist - gets on my tits. With things like makeup and women's magazines, well, that's choice. But Femfresh going around miseducating women about an area everyone, male or female, tends to feel more insecure about than almost anything else is absolutely abhorrent. There is no need for these products. They are pointless. This is the kind of crap they dole out to women in America, with their constant gynaecology appointments and disposable douche bags (actual bags for actual douching of the inside of your body, as though something evil is living inside of you that must be expelled). This is Britain: we have the NHS here. We officially medically acknowledge the self-cleaning properties of elements of our bodies. This must not change.

And that's without even taking into consideration their obnoxious marketing. As a writer - and an adult - I take as much exception to being told my vagina is a "froo-froo" by an international cosmetics company as I do to the tech industry labelling me as a "girl".

I am a woman, and as such I have a vagina. If I choose to call myself otherwise then that's up to me: but don't attempt to prey on my physical and psychological vulnerabilities (or the vulnerabilities of others) in order to infantilise me purely on the basis of what genitals I got landed with in the childbirth lottery.

So, after seeing their horrendous adverts splashed on billboards and then checking out their even more obnoxious Facebook campaign, I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. There were a very great many entertaining articles about the uproar at the time (see here, here, here and here for my favourites), but for once I wanted to go all the way: like others who complained, I needed to feel that something might actually come of all this outrage. Femfresh had gone too far.

I wrote a lengthy and extremely detailed account of every aspect of my issue with the advertising campaign, which unfortunately I didn't keep. Today, I received the following response which I will repeat in full (although the name and contact details at the end have been redacted).

Dear Ms Purves,

Thank you for contacting the ASA. I’m sorry to learn that this ad has caused you concern.

We assess the content of ads against our Code. Amongst other things, we take action if we feel that an ad is likely to provoke serious or widespread offence, to mislead or to cause significant harm. We have reviewed this ad in light of your complaint but I’m afraid that we do not have grounds for further action under our Code.

I should start by explaining that the ASA has no influence over the creative decisions taken by advertisers (or the agencies that work on their behalf) to use a particular character, situation or theme in their ad campaigns. We can only consider intervention when there is convincing evidence to suggest that our Codes are likely to have been breached; for example, when the content of an ad is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, poses a significant risk of causing harm, or is likely to materially mislead consumers about the product or service that is being advertised.

We contacted the advertiser in this instance (without revealing your identity) with a view to gaining a better understanding of the ad. They explained that the decision to use words such as “froo-froo” in this recent ad campaign, in place of the word “vagina”, was taken as a result of an extensive survey of women to establish their take on the subject being advertised. As a result of this survey, the advertiser established a trend in the use of euphemisms to describe intimate parts of the body, and they found that this was done in a light-hearted way between the women asked. The survey resulted in 189 different ‘names’ being given by the participants, of which the advertiser decided to choose six of the top ten for their ad campaign.

We appreciate the concerns that you have raised and that you find the ad distasteful, however we consider that in general terms the wider audience are likely to interpret these ads as being a light-hearted take on a personal and often sensitive subject rather than see them as being demeaning or derogatory towards women. Although we appreciate that ads concerning sanitary products will not appeal to everyone, and acknowledge that some consumers may find the content of these ads distasteful, we consider that the ads are unlikely to cause a degree of offence that would breach the Code.

We note that some perfumed products have a pH value that is different to that of the skin and can therefore cause irritation, especially in sensitive areas, and that Femfresh is designed to be an alternative to such products. The pH scale is a measure of how acid or alkaline something is. As we understand it, the product undergoes testing at independent laboratories, the results of which are reviewed by board-certified dermatologists and gynaecologists in accordance with relevant EU Directives. Dermatology is a branch of medicine dealing with the skin and its appendages (hair, sweat glands, etc) and Gynaecology obviously refers to the surgical specialty dealing with health of the female reproductive system. We consider that the product is designed to be sensitive and work with the natural makeup of skin in sensitive areas and in light of this, do not think the ad is likely to mislead people to their detriment. At present we have no reason to believe that the product is likely to cause harm and given the extensive testing that it undergoes, we do not consider that we have reason to challenge the advertiser further in relation to this point.

In any event, we have received confirmation from the advertiser that the ad that you have referred to is no longer appearing, and there are currently no plans to include similar statements in future ads. We’ve also become aware that the advertiser has removed their Facebook page.

I realise this may disappoint you, but thank you nonetheless for taking the time to contact us with your concerns. The ASA website, www.asa.org.uk, contains more information about the work we do.

Now, the nice bloke from the ASA makes the excellent point that the product has been well-tested and that advertising agencies can make the creative choices they like: I'm happy with that. This is a detailed, well written and comprehensive reply - even though I disagree with it. But what I'm really, really happy about is that Femfresh VOLUNTARILY withdrew their campaign (or at least let it end), and won't run a similar one again.

70s Australian Femfresh advert - 'When your body isn't discreet... you should be'But don't expect to see them completely vanish off the face of the earth. The thing is, Femfresh has actually been about for a while - check out this blog article showing loads of old FemFresh ads from the 70s.. My best friend, a district nurse, says that until now they've always marketed themselves at older women - who, due to issues with incontinence/mobility often actually do see the need for this kind of product. And now they've cornered that market, they obviously felt the need to try for another: insecure teens and young women. It's likely that the older women who make up the majority of Femfresh's current customers started using the disgusting gunk back in the olden days: and I think I can safely say that however beauty-obsessed and vapid young women currently are, they're obviously more savvy than those who fell for Femfresh's wiles back in the day.

See, this is much more of a victory than an anti-Femfresh ASA ruling would have been because instead of my adversary being unwillingly defeated they have independently decided, with their actual brains, that calling vaginas froo-froos is momentously stupid. They have realised that marketing products this way will not work. That's what makes this a truly sweet victory: because it wasn't a government body forcing Femfresh to stand down, but an acknowledgement by Femfresh themselves that humanity in general just won't put up with this crap. They looked at the volume of complaints, from intimidating bodies like the ASA as well as even more intimidating social media outrage (obviously something they misjudged horribly), and figured it wasn't worth it.

This is a victory for women: you might read celebrity gossip magazines and buy your female offspring Barbies, fellow vagina owners, but you do draw a line. And Femfresh were most decidedly on the wrong side of it.

*Oh, and a minor Twitter celeb/mother who should know better once told me I'm "just bitter, because nobody's ever loved me enough to want to give me a baby." Well, if that's the kind of idiot motherhood turns intelligent women into than I want none of it. However, given the violence of my own mother's reaction to this statement (and the "It's my human right to drag screaming babies to conferences/cinemas" argument) I'm fairly optimistic on this point.

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Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. This furore, and the adverts, quite passed me by until I saw a few tweets about it. The one and only time I heard of vaginal deodorants was when, some years ago, I leafed through a Not the Nine O’Clock News annual/book (quite good, but dated as well as you’d expect) owned by my mum.

    There was a whole page called “Dear Sissy”, a faux agony aunt column sort of affair, that in hindsight must have been satirising Femfresh and related products. I actually assumed, when I read it, that vaginal deodorants themselves must be just satire. Anyhow, it had a funny bit along the lines of “We contacted Cliff Richard’s agent to find out what vaginal deodorant Cliff uses, but we haven’t heard back at the time of going to print.” Why I still remember that line in particular is a mystery for the seven ages of man…

  2. I also hadn’t spotted these particular adverts, but have over the last couple of years noticed that, for instance, it’s increasingly difficult to get ‘light’ sanitary protection – the kind one might use at the beginning and end of a period when you’re not bleeding like a stuck pig but don’t want to have to soak small bloodstains out of several days’ worth of underwear – that don’t have ‘aloe’, ‘fresh fragrance’ or some other tosh added into them. I’m sure this didn’t used to be the case, and I’d kind of thought that the idea that one had to perfume one’s vagina was some weird 70s habit that had died the death. Obviously not. Some smart marketeer has obviously decided that raunch culture, ‘because I’m worth it’ and the saturation of every other toiletries market makes it a good bet to return to making women paranoid that they might have the faintest natural scent. As you point out, there is a (to me depressing market logic about things like stupidly-priced make-up and bitchy women’s magazines, but when it gets into the realms of miseducating and misinforming women about their bodies and the safety of such products it’s a different level of insidiousness.

  3. you are a moron.

  4. I’m not easily imseesprd but you’ve done it with that posting.


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