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Wake-up call or smear campaign? How an ad for sanitary pads is dividing Turkish public opinion

Screenshot from an ad for sanitary pads that is causing a debate in Turkey.

In Turkey, a top sanitary pad brand launched a daring video ad and framed it as a campaign fighting femicide and social taboos associated with periods. Yet the video proved so divisive the company had to issue an apology and remove it as some perceived it as an attack on Turkey's reputation abroad.

The ad, named “Uncover the Shame”, or “Utanç Paketleri” in Turkish, was released in late October 2019 by the American company Procter&Gamble, under their local brand Orkid, the leading seller of sanitary pads in Turkey.

The video, which is about one minute and a half long, starts with a voice over saying: “In Turkey, sanitary pads are covered in newspapers upon purchasing due to period stigma. In a society with news filled with violence, discrimination and unfairness towards women, selling sanitary pads isn't what's shameful.”

One can then see a pack of sanitary pads being wrapped into a newspaper. Later, the story moves to a printing press where a newspaper is being printed with headlines touching on key challenges women face in Turkey, such as low employment and political representation, gender-based violence and insufficient literacy rates. The video ends with a shot of the packs stacked on supermarket shelves while wrapped in that newspaper. A final message says: “Our packs were sold over three days”.

The video won an award for its creativity at the 26th Golden Drum International Creativity Festival in Slovenia in October 2019. It then started circulating on Turkish social media, including via the company's Twitter account.

It immediately launched a heated debate dividing people on the interpretation of the message. While some embrace and support it, others experience strongly negative reactions, reading it as a “humiliation to Turkey” and calling for a boycott of the brand. 

A welcome slap in the face

Those who support the content claim that the video is indeed telling the truth. Some netizens use the reference of the slap when describing it: 

This is an ad that slaps you in the face as it tries to explain that the mentality that brings shame to selling pads is the same that is not ashamed of crimes against women.

Feyza Altun, a famous lawyer and feminist activist, notes that:

Orkid's ad is a smack in the chops, in response to wrapping sanitary pads with newspaper as if it was something shameful or to be hidden. [The brand] printed news of crimes committed against women in Turkey and used it as packaging

The issue is perhaps best summarized by netizen Nisa:

Instead of not understanding the message in the #Orkid advert, and thinking “What do you mean, are Turkish women despicable?”, I wish we could realize instead that what is despicable are the news in those newspapers. 

Call for a boycott of the brand

Those who strongly disagree with the ad claim it humiliates Turkey and its women, and spreads lies when it paints Turkey as a backward, conservative and a fanatical country. For example, one netizen writes on Twitter:

[Orkid] is humiliating Turkey for wrapping sanitary pads in a newspaper. Meanwhile others are saying, this is a smack in the chops advert. How many of you really do buy your sanitary pads wrapped in newspaper? This [is] not shame @orkid ! It is unacceptable to show our country as backward #orkid

Another netizen suggests foreigners are plotting to diminish Turkey's military glory with the ad/campaign:

“Orkid, if you did this advertisement 10 years ago, maybe it would have been true, but now you know very well that there is no such thing! Let's come to what is the reason of this ad? The Zionist capital plays their part as a reaction to our sledgehammer operation, the Peace Spring Operation.

Apologies from the brand

After calls to boycott the brand increased in social media, Orkid removed the video from its official account and made a statement which was reproduced by Turkish newspapers: 

Türkiye’de Orkid markası için tasarlanan mağaza içi kampanyası, Türkiye’de ve dünyada kadınların yaşadığı damgalanma, ekonomik kısıtlar nedeniyle hijyenik pede erişememe ve toplumsal cinsiyete dayalı şiddet de dahil olmak üzere bazı ciddi sorunlara ışık tutmak amacını taşıyordu. Bu sorunlar nadiren tartışılıyor, genellikle utanç duygusuna dönüşüyor ve genç kızlar, kadınlar ve aileleri için hayat boyu karşı karşıya kalacakları konuları oluşturuyor. Fikrin uygulanmasında niyetimizi tam olarak yansıtamadığımızı görüyoruz ve herhangi bir yanlış anlaşılmaya sebep olduysa bundan dolayı da üzgünüz.

The campaign designed in-house by the Orkid brand in Turkey was aiming to illustrate the lack of access to sanitary pads due to economic constraints, and the violence caused by gender inequality. These issues are rarely discussed, and often turn into sources of embarrassment, thus creating lifelong issues for girls, women and their families. We see that we can not fully reflect our intentions in the implementation of the idea, and we are sorry if it caused any misunderstanding.”

As nearly three-quarters of Turkey's population now live in cities, today fewer women need to hide purchased sanitary pads in newspapers or black plastic bags, which would have been necessary in the past, particularly if the person at the cashier was a man. This is probably still the case in remote villages.

Regardless, stigma remains widespread across Turkish society, which is why the school curriculum does not provide any teaching or information about gender and sexuality. The situation is in no way better in higher education: in February 2019, the Turkish higher education system also disavowed gender equality by removing the Gender Equality Attitude Certificate. 

According to the Turkish organization We Will Stop Femicide Platform, femicide remains a daily reality: on October alone, 36 women were killed by men: 

We published our October 2019 report:
In 31 days, 36 women killed by men. Violence and child abuse keep happening.

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