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How Canesten Undressed the Truth about Vulvas



LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to the team at AnalogFolk London that helped Canesten educate audiences of all ages about real vulvas and vulval health

How Canesten Undressed the Truth about Vulvas

In recent years, the health and wellness category in adland has had some pretty hard-hitting moments, however it seems that people still naturally interact with healthcare brands mostly whenever they have a problem that needs treatment. And health products that treat thrush and bacterial vaginosis probably tend to be seen as the least glamorous brands of them all - rather, often they tend to be largely connected to feelings of shame. For Canesten, the intimate health brand expert, this hits quite close to home. Facing the same challenge that many other healthcare brands face, Canesten found that in the category there is really “no desire to interact with vaginal infection brands.”

According to Alisa Maul, strategy director at AnalogFolk London, “this is mainly due to the feeling people associate with having a vaginal infection.” To her, they don’t just “feel embarrassed,” but the topic triggers real feelings of shame, which she calls an “intense, enduring emotion, causing feelings of disgust, anger and apologies.” Drawing the parallel between being embarrassed and being ashamed is quite important here - embarrassment being the feeling one gets when something happens to them, whereas shameful situations are largely due to something the person has done wrong. “This creates the idea that vaginal infections are caused by something shameful, i.e. sex or being dirty, which could not be further away from the truth,” Alisa explains.

“This creates a real problem, both emotionally and physically. Shame prevents consumers from saying the word vagina or even telling a doctor about their vaginal issues. Instead they often turn to the internet when they have a problem.” Given that the internet, as a place of myths and misconceptions, is often the breeding ground for audiences of all ages searching for real advice and help. Claims suggesting that  thrush and BV are types of STI’s are only a couple of the myths one can find while browsing the web for help with their vaginal issues, and this is just the beginning. Many people with vulvas will find that there is something “promiscuous” about vaginal infection, what a vagina is supposed to look like, which is over-sexualised and causes harm on a physical and emotional level.

This is exactly why Canesten and AnalogFolk London came together earlier in July to eradicate all metaphors, misconceptions, and lies - unveiling all the mythicism around vulvas through their campaign ‘The Truth. Undressed.’ Canesten was aiming to - though their microwebsite packed with information and photographs of real, unedited and unsexualised vulvas of people of all races, backgrounds and genders - help people “set themselves free from shame and discomfort.” The social media campaign showed short videos of flowers or fruits - metaphors commonly used instead of the real human vulva - to actually lead people to the website, where they could find all the useful information they could need. The campaign comes as a response to recent research which found that only 6% of UK women aged 18 to 24 were educated onintimate health conditions through the educational system. Barely two thirds of them found out about vaginal infections when they first actually experienced them.

Canesten also collaborated with The PSHE Association to create four age-appropriate lesson plans for key stages three to five, which will be available for all teachers in UK schools to use from the 11th of August. Teachers will have the option to choose various lesson resources including photography and realistic illustrations, or teach entirely without imagery. A supporting teacher guidance document on whether and how to use these visual resources will also be provided. Jacqueline Hedge, senior creative and copywriter at AnalogFolk London says the collaboration with The PSHE was a “key component” of the campaign and helped all parties share the ambition to create an accessible and impactful shame-free education experience. . “We partnered with The PSHE on many levels, from adapting the content to be appropriate for different age groups, to the ways that LGBTQIA+ topics are talked about, to how to talk about porn in a way that truly reflects what young people may encounter,” says Jacqueline.

Alisa explained that to ensure AnalogFolk could fulfil Canesten’s purpose, they built their strategy on three core pillars: knowledge, courage and access. Starting with knowledge, AnalogFolk wanted to ensure they deliver a shame-free education, wherein the busting those myths and helping women’s relationships with their vaginas. “We wanted to give people knowledge in places where they already consume content. ur audience of 16-25 year olds frequently use TikTok and Instagram as primary channels,” which is exactly what made them aim to drive traffic to the microwebsite through these platforms the most. 

“Courage: to free people from shame, we need to give them the courage to have an open and honest conversation - when we can talk about vaginas, we can talk about vaginal health.” Hence, the lack of euphemisms and metaphors. “For access, we wanted to ensure that education, products and solutions are available to everyone, especially for groups who were brought up in a culture where these topics are taboo and feel too ashamed to speak to a doctor,” continues Alisa. This is why the website also includes a symptom checker, to ensure people get the right products even if they are too worried to see a specialist. 

Taking a step back from the ‘girl boss’ movement of third wave feminism and trying to forget all the butifyed vaginas with glittery discharge, Canesten is taking the truth and connecting all every woman that has never actually felt empowered by ‘girl power’ with her sister, neighbour and friend. Amandine Fabian, creative director at AnalogFolk London echoed Alisa’s arguments and backed them with their own research. “This feeling of shame we speak of is so strongly associated with the lack of representation of diverse and real vulvas and the ‘beautifying’ and porn industries. They influence our standards of normality and perpetuate the idea of a perfect vulva, which does not exist, spreading misinformation and dangerous trends that impact the vaginal flora and cause infections.” This inevitably comes down to encouraging a greater diversity of bodies, vulvas, skins, pubic hair and genders in the media, where creative media can really put an end to any dangerous practices. 

Gracie Hawes, senior creative and art director at AnalogFolk London explained why this crucial diversity had to be addressed and why the photography on the Canesten microwebsite is a crucial part of the campaign. “The images of vulvas and discharge were captured by photographer Sophie Mayanne, best known for shooting Mothercare’s award-winning ‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ campaign and personal project ‘Behind the Scars’. We selected Sophie for her honest and authentic style and her passion for real representations of bodies. We also have portraits of people with a vagina, captured by Holly Wren featuring women, trans men and non-binary people.”

The intention, explains Gracie, always laid with moving imagery of vulvas away from a sexualised depiction into the more informative, educational space, thereby equipping young people with the essential information needed to understand their bodies. “Great attention has been given to ensure these images truly show what vulvas look like in a desexualised, educational context,” Gracie says. “This is done through depicting daily nude situations outside of sexual scenarios, such as dressing or showering; by using bright, daytime lighting which enables us to see the anatomy clearly and avoids nighttime connotations; carefully selected environments, settings and props as well as poses where our cast appear confident and empowered.” She adds that making sure the models always felt comfortable and respected was also a priority for the shoot. “We worked with intimacy coordinator Lydia Reeves for the casting and shoot. Lydia specialises in making casts of vulvas and other parts of the body and we used the network of people she had previously worked with and her casts for our casting.”

Even though we have seen braver moves towards feminist issues within the advertising world, with more representation and imagery of real blood, hair and vaginal discharge, one can’t help but wonder what the strategy around this incredible work has been. Gracie says that the real photographs of vulvas and discharge are present on both the website and the lesson plans developed in partnership with the PSHE, but to enable the existence of the campaign in the public realm, as well as on the microsite, a lot of work was done. “We had to adapt the driving creative to work around the regulations of the social platforms, where our driving ads are running. This became about working with policy teams to find ways to discuss the problems of censorship and taboo without falling foul of community guidelines, often demonstrating the problem to draw viewer’s attention to it, provoke a sense of injustice, and offer our platform as a solution.”

As one step further towards what adland is aiming to achieve, Amandine Fabian, creative director at AnalogFolk London, hopes more brands will realise that there is nothing wrong with showing real vulvas or real discharge to the appropriate audience. “Especially when it comes to education,the perfectly symmetrical, white-skinned vulva with manicured pubic hair perpetuates the idea of a ‘normal vulva’ and is doing more harm than good,” she says. “Of course, I understand that real photographs are not adapted to every audience, but I really hope that ‘The Truth, Undressed’ paves the path to a type of advertising with more realistic representation of vulvas in their shapes, skin tones andpubic hair- even in illustrations- and greater inclusion of people from the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Amandine adds,  “Ultimately, we want to change minds so that vaginas are no longer overly sexualised, stereotyped or taboo.To truly overcome shame and drive long-term societal impact, we need to keep sharing a realistic image of our bodies, and keep learning and talking openly about vaginas until everyone is educated on vaginal health - not just people with vaginas.”

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AnalogFolk, Tue, 02 Aug 2022 16:51:47 GMT