You know what I would like a major manufacturer of tampons to do? Make tampons. You know what I wouldn’t like them to do? Make creepy sex jokes on Twitter. This is a not-so-subtle reference to Tampax, which caused large swathes of the internet to see red after an off-colour tweet last week. “You’re in their DMs,” Tampax tweeted. “We’re in them. We are not the same.”
I spend a good 60% of my waking hours on Twitter. Maybe you don’t. If we are not the same then you might have no idea what on earth Tampax was on about. (Good for you!) Essentially, its joke was a mashup of two popular memes. The plain English translation reads: “You’re flirting with them via direct message, I’m in their vagina. Ha ha, I’m better than you.”
If any brand has licence to make jokes about things being up vaginas, it’s Tampax. Sexualising tampons, however, is revolting. Still, the tweet had the intended effect, I suppose, which was to get people talking about Tampax. The gender-neutral language also sparked a heated argument about trans people because, hey, what doesn’t spark a heated argument about trans people these days? While I admit spending 60% of my life on Twitter isn’t healthy, it’s not as unhealthy as spending 99.99% of your waking hours obsessing over trans people’s right to exist, which is what a depressing number of people seem to do.
And as creepy as Tampax’s tweet was, it doesn’t win first prize in the November 2022 edition of The Worst Attempt to Be Edgy By a Major Brand Awards. Nope, that honour goes to Balenciaga. The luxury fashion brand is currently dealing with back-to-back controversies over two disturbing ad campaigns. The first showed toddlers clutching the brand’s “plush bear bags”, which are teddy bears clad in leather harnesses, ankle restraints and other accessories often associated with bondage. A separate campaign, for its $3,000 “hourglass bag”, showed a desk covered in documents which, eagle-eyed internet users discovered, were printouts from a 2008 US supreme court decision about the constitutionality of a conviction for child sexual abuse images. After understandable backlash, Balenciaga has now yanked the bondage bears campaign and is suing the producers of the “hourglass bag” ad. Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian has said she is “re-evaluating” her relationship with the label after the controversy.
When I worked in advertising, I once spent nine hours having a back-and-forth with a client about the shape of an ice cube in the vodka advert we were shooting. Which is to say: ads go through a lot of scrutiny before they see the light of day. It’s hard to believe nobody at Balenciaga looked at those campaigns and thought: “Hmmm, this looks dodgy, maybe we shouldn’t pair toddlers with bondage bears?” Obviously, I have no idea what was going on behind the scenes, but I presume someone messed up big time.
Anyway, you know what the moral to all this is? Brands need to stop trying to be edgy. I would blame social media for brands making bad decisions in a desperate attempt to be talked about, but brands were doing this long before Twitter. First prize for creepiest advertising campaign in living memory probably goes to Fiat. In 1994, the carmaker sent out anonymous love letters to 50,000 women in Spain in a misguided attempt to market a car. Each letter was personally addressed and contained lines such as: “We met again on the street yesterday and I noticed how you glanced with interest in my direction.” There was no indication this was a marketing campaign – that detail was meant to be revealed in a follow-up letter. Needless to say, a lot of women freaked out; some women were reportedly so scared they were being stalked that they locked themselves in their apartments.
So again, please, brands, stop trying to be edgy. Please stop trying to get people talking about you because you did something gross, and get people to talk about you by doing something like, I dunno, lowering your prices. Wouldn’t that be shocking?
Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist