Tampax marketing: Then and now
Listen to this article:
Tampax didn’t invent the tampon. Throughout history, women have been soaking up their periods with everything from paper (Japan) to moss (Europe).
Earle Haas, however, did invent the first tampon with an applicator. In the late 1920s, Haas, an osteopathic physician who struck it rich with his previous invention of a flexible ring for a contraceptive diaphragm, wanted to invent a better period product than the rags his wife used every month to manage her period.
After talking to a friend in California who used a sponge to soak up her period, Haas designed a cotton plug that could be inserted into the vagina with two pieces of cardboard. (The next time you use a tampon with an applicator, think of Haas, who saved generations of women from the filth of their own periods!)
Haas’ involvement with Tampax ended almost immediately after he received the patent for his invention in 1933. As it turns out, sales skills matter — Haas couldn’t get anyone interested in his tampon, so he sold the patent to Gertrude Tendrich for $32,000 that same year.
The original #girlboss, Tendrich became Tampax’s first president who would convince thousands of women to start using tampons to manage their periods. While the behavioral switch didn’t always correlate with safety — tampons made with synthetic materials were linked to toxic shock syndrome in the 1980s — Tampax tampons are no doubt one of the most memorable inventions of the 20th century.
Now that Tampax has reached the top of the global market share food chain, period product startups are pouncing on the opportunity to unseat them. Can they? Keep reading to find out how the empire awash with the blood of millions came to be what it is today — and whether or not they can compete with the newest wave of TikTok eco-feminist brands flooding the market now.
Tampax business timeline
1931: Earle Haas, an osteopathic physician, invents the first disposable tampon with an applicator.
1933: Haas is granted the patent for his invention and names it “Tampax”, a portmanteau of “tampon” and “vaginal packs”.
1933: After unsuccessful attempts to drum up interest in Tampax, Haas sells the patent and trademark to Denver businesswoman Gertrude Tendrich for $32,000.
1934: Tendrich runs Tampax out of her home, hand-sewing every tampon before she’s able to use machinery.
1936: Tampax becomes available by mail for 35 cents in discreet, paper-wrapped boxes of 10.
1936: The first Tampax print ad runs in The American Weekly magazine.
1941: Tampax launches its first education program to teach women how to use tampons as World War II increases demand among women in the workforce.
1942: A survey finds that 37% of people using tampons still use homemade versions.
1945: Magazine Consumer Reports notes the rapid growth of tampons as a trend to watch.
1945: The Journal of the American Medical Association publishes its first substantial research on tampons. Tampax funded and conducted many studies on the safety of tampons from 1945 to the 1960s.
1972: The National Association of Broadcasters lifts the ban on advertising for menstrual pads and tampons on television and radio.
1976: U.S. Congress switches the categorization of tampons under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act from cosmetics to medical devices — which means tampon manufacturers are not required to list their ingredients on packaging.
1980: The Centers for Disease Control issues a report linking tampons to toxic shock syndrome (TSS) after manufacturers begin making tampons with “modified superabsorbent cellulose” to compete with Procter & Gamble’s super absorbent tampon, Rely (discontinued the same year).
1985: Tampax revives an all-cotton tampon it had discontinued in 1978 as a response to warnings about synthetic materials and their link to TSS.
1985: Courtney Cox says the word “period” on TV for the first time in a Tampax ad.
1997: Tambrands, Tampax’s parent company, is acquired by Procter & Gamble. The company creates a new tampon that expands widthwise based on the shape of the vagina.
2002: Tampax launches Tampax Pearl, a tampon with a plastic applicator and a “leakguard braid” removal cord.
2015: Eighty percent of menstruating people in the U.S. use tampons.
2015: Tampax launches the Pocket Pearl, a tampon with a pocket-size applicator.
2018: Tampax launches its first menstrual cup in the U.S. only.
2019: Tampax launches its first organic cotton tampon.
2019: Tampax has 29% global market share of tampons, first in its category — all while new competitors try to steal market share with messaging on sustainability, natural ingredients, and corporate social responsibility.
How to convince women to use tampons
It’s hard for any one company to change behavior on a population level.
The Apples and the Fords of the world are rare. It’s not often that an organization can claim a behavioral shift as radical as what the iPhone or the car triggered among consumers.
In most cases, successful companies are keen observers of signals that have the potential to shift standard behavior, and they’re good at jumping on the opportunities those signals present. World events like World War II and the pandemic shifted human behavior more permanently than any marketing budget ever has; odds are, you didn’t start using Zoom because of an ad.
The most successful companies aren’t necessarily the ones that advertise the most—they’re the ones who predicted their target audience’s destination and jumped on the bandwagon early enough to charge for the ride first.
In 1933, when Gertrude Tendrich started Tampax, she lived in a world where inserting anything into your vagina was sexual, therefore inappropriate. “A lot of people argued that [tampon use] was not only inappropriate because it might break the hymen, but it might be also pleasurable and might be a way for girls to experience orgasmic pleasure,” Sharra Vostral, the author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology, told The Atlantic.
Still, Tendrich wasn’t deterred. She started the Tampax business out of her home, hand-sewing every tampon herself before hiring other women to help her scale production with machinery.
By 1936, Tampax was available by mail-order for 35 cents per box of 10. The same year, Tampax ran the first ever print ad for tampons in The American Weekly magazine.
The Tampax “assurance of daintiness” was likely drafted as reaction copy to a common sales objection for tampons: “Tampons will break my hymen, and I won’t be a virgin for my future husband.” This is likely why Tampax leaned on the scientific and medical communities to help educate women on the use of tampons. Tendrich needed to build as much credibility as possible to fight the taboos associated with her product.
In 1941, Tampax launched a mass education program to teach women how to use tampons. Tendrich sent nurses and ambassadors to schools, universities, fairs, and conventions to teach women, usually younger, about the safety and benefits of tampons. (If Tampax were launching now, they’d be all in on hosting Twitter Spaces with medical influencers and hiring TikTok healthcare creators to talk about the safety and benefits of tampons.)
The 1940s Tampax education campaign reminds us that success doesn’t happen overnight. In 1942, 37% of people who used tampons still made them at home with strips of cotton from their doctor or from store-bought sponges.
But that same year, the U.S. entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941—and Tampax got the kickstart it needed to start reaping the benefits of their education efforts.
World War II and the rise of tampon use
Women were more likely to use tampons if they were active. Before the war, women who made their own tampons were more likely to be dancers, actresses, models, athletes, and sex workers.
As women began to work outside the home during World War II, they needed a more convenient way to manage their periods. Factories and offices were bad places to have periods when the standard solution was an awkward sanitary belt with a bulky pad. Before wartime work, many women (not all) were able to wait out their period at home without the “shame” of walking around with what felt like a diaper in their underwear.
By the early 1940s, Tampax had expanded to the UK and began running ads targeted to women working for the war effort — something, the ad below says, “that allows no time for off-days.”
By the end of the war, pads were still more popular than tampons. But the growth trajectory numbers didn’t lie: Tampon sales had increased by 500% between 1937–1943. In 1945, business magazine Consumer Reports earmarked the growth of tampon use as a trend to watch.
That same year, Tampax got another credibility boost when The Journal of the American Medical Association published its first substantial research on tampons. Dr. R.L. Dickinson’s “Tampons as Menstrual Guards” encouraged the use of tampons with an interesting rebuttal against the use of pads—“the sexual stimulation of the woman by the friction of the pad against the vulva.”
The research was the trigger Tampax needed to fund their own studies on the safety of tampons from 1945 to the 1960s, which became controversial in the 1980s when tampons using synthetic materials were shown not to be as safe as consumers thought.
No TV for tampons until 1972
Until the 1970s, Tampax was limited to print advertising because it was illegal to promote menstrual products on television and radio.
But all of this changed when The National Association of Broadcasters lifted the ban in 1972. By then other tampon brands had flooded the market, each with their own twist on the tampon. But across all tampon ads, there was one thing in common: They avoided saying the word “period.”
“Protection.” “Comfort.” This 1981 ad for Tampax—the earliest we could find—says anything and everything except “period” or “menstruation.” The ban on TV advertising for period products had been lifted for almost a decade, yet still no one had uttered the word “period” on TV.
This changed in 1985 when a pre-Friends Courtney Cox became the first person to say the word “period” in a television ad. At first you’re wondering whether or not she’ll say it — she starts the ad by referencing “that time of the month”, then tiptoes again by saying “that time”—but in the last second of the ad, she finally lets loose: “[Tampax] can actually change the way you feel about your period.”
While some celebrate the ad for its progressive word choice, the moment didn’t do much to change the way tampons were advertised in the following decades. It’s true that more ads started to use straightforward language to describe menstruation, but secrecy would become the major benefit presented in most advertising for menstrual products into the twenty-first century.
Marketing secrecy as a benefit: No one should know about your period
By 1990, the tampon industry had been reeling for a decade because of new information on the link between toxic shock syndrome and tampons. Procter & Gamble’s Rely tampon—discontinued due to high rates of TSS caused in part by super-absorbent carboxymethylcellulose, or CMC—made people realize how little they knew about the ingredients in tampons.
(To this day, tampon manufacturers aren’t federally required to list their ingredients due to their reclassification from cosmetic to medical device in 1976. In 2020, New York became the first state to require it.)
So it’s no surprise that tampon use was seeing some decline in 1990. That year, research by the Association of Schools of Public Health showed that the TSS scare of the ’80s had caused “a significant decrease in use of tampons in all racial-ethnic groups.”
In 1997, Procter & Gamble had recovered enough from the Rely fiasco to purchase Tambrands, Tampax’s parent company. Ironically, what would persist over the next two decades of Tampax marketing and development was the message that tampons should be a secret, along with your dirty, dirty period.
When Procter & Gamble acquired Tampax, they were obsessed with redesigning the tampon. Even more than trying to “avoid another Rely”, they wanted to speak to a new generation of women who didn’t want to wear the “tampon their mother used.” In 2002, Tampax released one of their most successful products: Tampax Pearl, a tampon with a blue plastic applicator and a removal cord with a leakguard braid.
At the same time, Tampax continued to re-release and promote their long standing Tampax Compak product, which miniaturized a regular tampon to fit discreetly in your palm. With the early aughts tagline “made to go unnoticed”, the message was clear: No one should know about your period, and no one needs to when you use Tampax.
The ad below for Tampax Compak should feel familiar to anyone who’s had to ask for a tampon. In class, one girl passes another a tiny note that fits in the palm of her hand. Her friend responds by pulling a tiny tampon from her purse and passing it to her friend. The tampon fits just as nicely in the palm of her hand as the bunched up note.
Or how about this UK ad, in which some poor bloke thinks a Tampax Compak is actually a sugar packet. His girlfriend need only to remind him that he’s on a diet to keep her secret safe.
The trope was so persistent into the 2010s that SNL spoofed it with their Tampax Secrets skit, which shows a woman who would rather be seen holding a literal dead rat than a tampon.
Regardless of how you feel about the messaging on principle, tampon advertising as a whole made the TSS scare a distant memory. By 2015, 80% of menstruating people in the U.S. were using tampons. That same year, Tampax counted 21.6 million customers, with Playtex trailing far behind in second place at 12.6 million.
New blood: Period startups set their sights on Tampax market share
In 2019, Tampax enjoyed a 29% global market share of tampons, the first in its category. But new period startups are ready to steal a piece of the pie with fresh messaging that promises better ingredients, environmental sustainability, and a more honest and open attitude about menstruation.
In 2015, some people got tired of having their period in secret. That year Kiran Gandhi free-bled as she ran the London Marathon, posting pictures of her blood-soaked leggings on Instagram. Poet Rupi Kaur posted a photo of a sleeping girl bleeding through her jogging pants, which caused a stir when it was removed and later reposted to Instagram.
Millennials and zoomers who menstruate are ready for a better message about their periods—that they don’t have to hide it. Brands like Thinx and Flo are rising to the challenge with messaging that tells women it’s just fine to talk about their period, especially in the presence of men—no matter how they may feel about it (but seriously, who cares).
People who menstruate are also tired of hearing their period pain doesn’t matter. Daye, makers of a CBD tampon, claims their “doctor recommended” tampon helps relieve period cramps faster than painkillers.
But even more importantly, younger people are concerned about a tampon’s carbon footprint. That’s why so many brands are producing tampons with “organic, unbleached cotton” rather than viscose, which requires chemical treatment.
But we need to be careful what we buy into. Beyond synthetic materials, brands that claim to use “organic cotton” aren’t necessarily more ethical or environmentally friendly. According to a Guardian article that investigated the production methods of new period brands, “India and Pakistan are two of the largest cotton producers in the world, and many reports have revealed the extent to which their cotton industries rely heavily on child labour. Not only that, for every 1kg of cotton, you need 10,000 litres of water, all to help make a product that comes enclosed in a non-recyclable plastic applicator.”
No matter whether or not new period products are in fact more sustainable, Tampax has been playing catchup with consumer attitudes since 2018. That year they released a menstrual cup in the U.S., with their first organic cotton tampon not far behind.
Tampax has even gone back to their educational roots to promote their organic tampon as part of their Girlology series, in which an OB-GYN carefully dances around the idea that organic tampons are not safer than regular tampons so as not to cannibalize sales of Tampax’s standard product line.
The menstruation category will be an interesting one to watch over the next five years as venture capitalists pour money into what’s theoretically a stable business. If another brand can hook enough young women and keep their loyalty throughout life, it may just be enough to dethrone Tampax, the last century’s undeniable Queen Aunt Flo.