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A date with Brad, from Stayfree's new commercial.
A date with Brad, from Stayfree's new commercial.

Feminine products

Ads for pads: Can a guy sell menstrual products? Add to ...

Shaggy-haired Brad stirs the Barolo reduction in a kitchen gleaming with stainless steel. He offers you a ricotta canapé, popping it in your mouth. His latest cookbook is on display: One's for you, another's for your mom. He's also mercifully removed his shirt - his hairless six-pack ripples.

Cut to the dinner table, where Brad has inexplicably laid out three sanitary napkins.

"Stayfree has this ultrasoft cottony dry cover," he murmurs, holding up a pad.

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What sounds like a date gone horribly wrong is actually a new viral campaign from Stayfree. Brad is one of three beefcakes shilling pads in ads posted last week to YouTube by BBDO, the Toronto ad firm that created them. Ryan loves doing laundry, rescuing cats and crafting toys for "underprivileged kids overseas"; Trevor vacuums below a wall plastered with his medical degrees.

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Marketing to women with idealized boyfriends is hardly new, but this may be the first attempt to recapture the fanaticism stirred up by Isaiah Mustafa as the Old Spice guy. (Representatives from Johnson & Johnson, which owns the Stayfree brand, declined an interview Wednesday.)

While most critics (feminists among them) will admit that the ads are funny, many feel conflicted about the message. For one thing, some complain that the ads pander to cheap clichés about women's idea of a perfect boyfriend, the kind on show in books such as Porn for Women, which features hunks folding laundry and forgoing the NFL playoffs for a crafts fair.

"I have always dreamed of a man who would have dinner almost ready when I got home, and then mansplain the intricacies of feminine hygiene products while the risotto simmered," Elizabeth Kissling writes on a blog called re: Cycling.

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Prof. Kissling, president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, says the Stayfree campaign follows in the tongue-in-cheek tradition of a Kotex ad released in March. It featured a woman criticizing clips that were actually Kotex ads of yore: ladies pirouetting with daisies, leaping on the beach or performing gymnastics, dressed in white, of course.

"People have joked for years about how goofy ads for fem care are. They're the most reviled category of ads on television," says Prof. Kissling, who teaches women's studies and communication at Eastern Washington University.

"Creepy, condescending and uncomfortable," is how Elissa Stein describes the new Stayfree campaign.

Ms. Stein co-authored Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation with Susan Kim. She argues that the ads move the menstruation conversation backward because the process remains unnamed, and that mysterious blue liquid (the same liquid seen in diaper ads) substitutes for blood.

"It's a very antiseptic experience," Ms. Stein says.

"There's no explicit reference to exactly what those pads are for," Prof. Kissling says. "They just happen to be sitting on the grand piano ready for a demo."

Both critics preferred the Kotex ad: "They were a step in the right direction because even if they weren't talking about the reality of menstruation, they're poking fun at how ridiculous the ads have been," Ms. Stein says.

Others think the campaign is a reprieve from ads that objectify women and make female viewers feel inadequate.

"They're giving you a two-minute break where you get to be solicited by a shirtless hunk. You hit a home run just because you're there," says Garry Martin Leonard, who teaches courses in advertising and commodity culture at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

He says the campaign revolves around a powerful gender reversal: A voyeuristic woman is (presumably) behind the camera and men are the fetish objects.

"The men are performing. They're showing off their bodies, skills, accomplishments, grace, elegance and charm, all of the things that women often feel they'll be judged on when they arrive for the date," Prof. Leonard says.

Chella Quint isn't sold.

"It's an interesting new gambit, but it falls down," says Ms. Quint, the Sheffield, Britain-based comedy writer and editor of the zine Adventures in Menstruating.

"While they look good and they're smooth, they're a little condescending, just like the fem-care industry," said Ms. Quint, who also blogs at chartyourcycle.wordpress.com.

She fingers the red Barolo stain on Brad's shirt: "[It]figures that the first time ever there's a red stain in a fem-care ad it's on a dude."

She also points out that it isn't the first time a large corporation has used men to sell pads and tampons.

Last July, Tampax launched Zack16.com: The elaborate campaign included nine videos and a blog about a fictional high-school student named Zack Johnson whose penis is replaced with a menstruating vagina.

At the end of the series, Zack concludes: "Now, I'm not going to say I'm thrilled about my still-missing guy parts, but at least I'm figuring out how to deal with this thing. And my cramps chilled out finally. It's hard to believe that every woman, and now me, has to go through this every month. Getting your period sucks, but I guess it's not the end of the world. I mean, 50 per cent of the population has a vagina and they seem to be doing pretty well."

"You cannot speak to a woman through a male's perspective," says Stephanie Holland, the president of Alabama-based Holland + Holland Advertising, who also edits She-conomy.com, a blog that "helps men understand how to market to women."

Ms. Holland isn't a fan of the Stayfree ads, particularly the men's obsession with female "moisture."

"There's no girl stupid enough to confer back and forth with him on that. He's actually pulled this person in, and by doing that, now you're saying that women are stupid."

If it's not a chiselled hottie building toys for underprivileged kids or a Michael Cera type waxing ecstatic about menstruation, what do women want in their pad ads?

The reality of the experience, Ms. Stein says.

"Maybe you feel really bitchy. Maybe you're really tired. Maybe your face is breaking out," she offers. "Could a man be involved in that? Why not?"

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