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« Hurricane Video Feed | Main | Lotsa Magazines »

September 27, 2005

Blue is the Color of ...

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Interesting how the media world sometimes manages to associate a certain color with a certain product. I marveled here, for instance, about how many car ads feature silver-gray cars. Once upon a time, silver-gray cars meant "advanced German engineering," if not actually "Mercedes" and "Porsche." These days, silver cars seem to mean "high-tech" (and perhaps "grown-up") more generally.

But color-coding isn't limited to cars. Another color-product correspondence recently caught my eye. Here's a standard example:

An active young woman ... A spotless and serene environment ... And lots and lots of blue. In ad-world these days, blue seems to mean "feminine sanitary product." Here's some confirmation:

Who knew that a feminine napkin could be folded into the shape of a Barcalounger, eh?

But as far as colors go ... When I was a kid, the color that ad-people associated with tampons, napkins and the like was white. Ads for these products were full of women being active, feeling clean and unhindered, and lots of white. Lots and lots of white. In fact, so much white that the women in the ads seemed to be defying the viewer to spot a little errant leakage: "See? No red spots!" they seemed to be saying. I confess that I was a little traumatized by these ads. I looked at them and, blinded by spotlessness and whiteness, thought, "My god, what a horror movie a menstrual period must actually be!", and more or less passed out from fright.

If in those days white meant "hygiene" -- and that was the hygiene-addicted era of the immortal FDS (Feminine Deodorant Spray) aerosol, after all -- then what does blue mean today? Blue, blue ... I suppose blue might be taken to mean "cleanliness," if not more specifically "the negator of red." What else? Hmm ... Chlorine pools, the sky ... So maybe blue also means "clarity" and "active fun"? I'm refraining out of delicacy from mentioning the blue of toilet-bowl cleansers.

Interesting that, in the minds of ad-creators, blue seems to have a kind of all-inclusive "female-trouble product" embracingness. Here's an ad for something called Ortho Tri-Cyclen. I'm not sure I want to know what this product is good for; it sounds like a yogurt-starter, or maybe something that kills garden slugs. But the blue color in the ad for Ortho Tri-Cyclen is a surefire indicator that this product in fact has something to do with female hormones and moods.

So maybe blue's larger meaning is "anti-ickiness"?

Flipping through women's mags, I learned that a product doesn't need to be absorbent or taken internally to merit being blue-encoded. All it needs is to be destined for use on or around the female crotch:

I'm taking the model's flash of spotless-white bikini-crotch to be a reference back to the classic white-obsessed years of '60s and '70s feminine-hygiene advertising. Come to think of it, will today's excess of blue affect impressionable young boys the way white once affected me?

The current ad that seems to me to pull all of today's elements and motifs together most effectively comes from Playtex:

There it is -- the chef d'oeuvre of current female crotch-product ads. This Playtex ad has it all: the bikini; the active, feeling-good-about-herself, nothing-stops-me-from-enjoying-myself (not even sitting in water), flawless young woman; swoopy lines and shapes suggesting the classic women/water association as well as "good times" more generally; and tons and tons of blue. Everything about this ad says, "Hey, world! I'm not weighed down or held back by my biology!"

But I also notice a touch of ... Well, what is that purply-raspberry color called, anyway? A bit of it is present in the razor ad too. Purply-raspberry has some red and some blue in it. So is it merely an in-between kind of color? In the world of female crotch-product ads, does purply-raspberry merely harmonize with chlorine-blue? Or does it sing its own song?

When I went searching for an answer -- for an ad that nailed down what purply-raspberry stands for these days -- here's what I turned up:

That's an ad for Poise bladder-control panties. What my research indicates is that purply-raspberry signifies "a product that deals with leaky female bladders."

I'm probably reaching, but here's the meta-theory I've come up with to account for all the above: Purply-raspberry is the color of products that deal with the misbehaving female crotch; while chlorine-blue is the color of products that attend to the well-functioning (if sometimes icky) female crotch. In both cases, cleanliness and freshness are the subtext. Does this seem plausible?

When did blue replace white as the color for feminine-hygiene products? Does anyone know the history?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at September 27, 2005




Comments

I remember how the absorbing powers of sanitary towels were promoted by leaking blue ink from a fountain pen on them. In Europe, in the 1970s.

But, I think it's simple why blue has become the colour to promote them. As far as primary colours go, yellow is out because of the association with urine stains, red has that with blood, so only blue is left. Orange has associations with road work or ambulances, green these sanitary products aren't, and purple may be a noble colour but isn't really fresh or exciting.

White is hospital again, so that couldn't be used either,because hospital is not active lifestyle,happy happy menstruating.

Posted by: ijsbrand on September 27, 2005 02:13 AM



"Hey, world! I'm not weighed down or held back by my biology!" indeed. Blue is the color of masculinity, or at least it was when I was a little boy. In female hygiene product ads, blue is the color of women who take their gender equality seriously, and have seized the once-masculine prerogative of dam-building with energizing, fun-fun-fun results.

Didn't the switch come in the seventies? I find myself associating to the Pepsi generation ads (comin' at ya, goin' strong!) - which had the same liberation movement feel as today's tampon ads. White was passive, clinical and paternalistic. Blue is active, jumping into the swim. Women went from object to subject: from "Tests show..." to "You go!"

There's a prosaic proximate cause too: a lot of tampon ads depict tennis players, and people quit wearing tennis whites in the seventies.

Maybe the purplish hue, with its hint of blood - which feels more nineties to me - is meant to reassure consumers that the product knows they're still women, too. "You're active, sexy, all that - see the non-purple-tinted part of the image - but not to worry, we understand you still bleed. And we're here to help."

Posted by: Robert on September 27, 2005 02:40 AM



You have too much time on your hands. Have you considered a hobby?

Posted by: Sella Turcica on September 27, 2005 04:13 AM



Sella - You visit a website called "2 Blowhards" that 1) is packed with several years' worth of off-the-cuff essays, 2) shows no visible signs of being a money-making enterprise and 3) identifies its proprietors as "eternal amateurs", and your take on the whole thing is that the chief proprietor needs a *hobby*? Sheesh. What qualifies as a hobby?

Posted by: Robert on September 27, 2005 05:18 AM



Hmmm. I associate this new feminine-hygiene-blue with the blue of toilet flush cleaners, which predates the former. But why blue in both cases should signify cleanliness when dealing with bodily functions, I don't know. Something to do with the blue of the ocean I imagine.

Posted by: h. on September 27, 2005 05:25 AM



Blue, just in general, is associated with cleaning/cleanliness. This isn't just a feminine hygiene thing. As H. above mentions, toilet cleaning products have been using blue for awhile. Clean suits: blue (usually). Medical uniforms on Star Trek: blue.

I don't think it's really so much of a "shift in meaning" rather than a "shift in usage." White's a submissive color, used for innocent young girls, or to represent how exposed someone may be (if you're seeing them in it). Since the point of the ads is no longer to sell products to help women with things that ail them, but rather to empower them to become some kind of superhuman active! person, the innocent-passivity of white had to be abandoned for something else. Hey, blue works.

Posted by: . on September 27, 2005 07:45 AM



From a marketing point of view, the one that interests me is the Kotex line that actually *uses* the idea of red. They have red (and white, admittedly) packaging, with little pictures of things that are red and positive/appealing- lipsticks, etc. I think it's amazing- they are actually selling to women who are OK with their biology- who knew they existed?

I think blue is actually worse than white because it's the opposite of red. This market has always been about denial in a slightly sick way.

Posted by: Alice on September 27, 2005 08:49 AM



I've recently seen a television advertisement for a "feminine" product that's bold enough to use red, albeit in a subtle manner. It is for a new type of birth control pill that allows users to have just four periods per year. The advertisment opens a young woman wearing a white dress with large red polka dots. As the narration progresses, and you hear the four-periods-a-year pitch, a puff of wind blows most of the polka dots off the dress, in other words reducing the amount of red.

Posted by: Peter on September 27, 2005 09:24 AM



Blue is the default color of almost every corporate website I work on. So much so that we start out every discussion of a new site by whining: "Oh, God, can we use something other than blue?"

The blues in the ads are more ethereal, suggesting puffy clouds.

I don't understand why women would want to triumph over their biology. Well, some do, some don't. This is the old feminist line. Are you aware, Michael, that most women don't identify themselves as feminists? I know that this is difficult to keep in mind when one lives and works in Manhattan. The type of feminist woman who is the norm in Manhattan, LA and San Francisco is an oddity in most of the rest of the country.

Anyway, you might have missed a controversy over the color pink, incited by the Iowahawk. I responded. Hayden Fry, past football coach at Iowa, painted the visitor's locker room pink, in an effort to pscyhe the boys out.

See: http://iowahawk.typepad.com/iowahawk/2005/09/little_pink_foo.html

and

http://shoutingthomas.typepad.com/harleys_cars_girls_guitar/2005/09/ymca.html

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 27, 2005 09:36 AM



Michael, your preoccupation with feminine issues stats to look...excessive.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 27, 2005 09:50 AM



Tatyana, you're not wrong, but you're missing an essential component of how M. Blowhard's mind works...

BTW, early this morning I flipped on the T.V. to watch cartoons with my son, and instantly was confronted with a feminine hygiene advertisement showing a cute girl at a sort of meta-Foot Locker looking at different types of orange colored running shoes. The background? Wall-to-wall blue.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 27, 2005 10:15 AM



"early this morning I flipped on the T.V. to watch cartoons with my son, and instantly was confronted with a feminine hygiene advertisement"

Hopefully, the advertisement was not running on the same channel as was showing the cartoons.

Posted by: Peter on September 27, 2005 10:29 AM



Tatyana is almost too good to be true. I suspect that it's Michael's alter ego. Clever tactic, Michael!

She's got all the wild traits one expects from a feminist. The one I particularly love is the attack, attack, attack stance... the insistence that the relations between the sexes be politicized and hostile.

Then, if a man dares to respond, well he's got some psychological problems, doesn't he? Just doesn't know how to deal with a feisty womyn.

And the re-writing of human history so that it's all the Dark Ages, with nothing but hatred and conflict. Another one of the feminist favorites. Add to that the insistence that all white men have been rich and privileged. (Can't allow reality to interfere with ideology.)

She's the whole package, Michael. But, I think it's unfair for you to argue both sides. Unhealthy, too.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 27, 2005 10:49 AM



Right on target, Shouting Whatever.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 27, 2005 10:53 AM



S.T. -
Maybe Tatyana's had trouble finding a man. I don't know for sure, of course, but in my experience a lot of feminist types who criticize men have themselves not had much luck in the romance department. And she doesn't seem to appreciate my frequent comments about today's shortage of available women.

Posted by: Peter on September 27, 2005 11:06 AM



Hey, let's all play nice!

Anyway, I think everyone's observations, info, and theories about all this are far better than mine. The female desire to feel ... clean seems to be a powerful drive. Or at least it seems to be one that the advertisers have targeted heavily. Are real needs and desires being serviced, or are vulnerabilities being exploited -- hard to know sometimes.

You leave me wondering a couple of things, though. What if the feminine-hygiene color palette changes? What will that mean? And how might the whole attack on feminine-hygiene change in the near future, as rowdier and more uninhibited girls become a bigger part of the audience? Will the traditional genteelness of feminine-hygiene ads start to crumble -- the "feminine" fonts and typefaces, the sense that a coating of talcum powder has been gently placed over the entire subject, the tone of "just among us girls, we understand," all that feminine stuff, will it outlast the assault of the Riot Grrls? Or are we likely to start seeing irreverent, kickass ads for some of these products?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 27, 2005 11:27 AM



Maybe Tatyana's had trouble finding a man.

Have you considered the possibility, Peter, that feminists are not, as a whole, irrationally pissed-off, but are rather moved to entirely rational anger and frustration by your presence? Or, that you might have more success finding available women were you more willing to recognize and respect their autonomy?

If you haven't gotten this already, I doubt my repetition will make much of an impression on you, but a) not all women want "a man" in order to be happy (Some do, but others want a woman, or bachelor freedom for experimentation, or no one at all), and b) while assertive women may not be your thing, there are plenty of men who would disagree with you (certainly I've never had trouble finding one when I wanted one). Your comment comes across as an attempt to reinforce a standard of behavior, in which women behave submissvely and pleasingly towards men in order to earn approval and social status, which many if not most women don't want to embrace.

Insofar as that's simply your expression of personal preference, I wish you the best of luck in finding someone who satisfies it. But insofar as you are using coercive social mechanisms such as mockery and belittlement to enforce your preference as a social norm, you'd clearly better hope that mores revert back to the olden days when you could be admired merely for possessing a dick, because there doesn't seem to be much else that you have going for yourself.

Posted by: Amy Lamboley on September 27, 2005 12:18 PM



I'm astounded that, after 16 comments, the Virgin Mary has not yet been mentioned.

Blue is her color.

Posted by: Fred on September 27, 2005 12:22 PM



Well, I'll throw in 3 Virgin Marys and raise you a Madonna.

And, just to add to the fun, I'll have you know that my girlfriend manicures my fingernails.

Sometimes does my toenails, too.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 27, 2005 12:44 PM



Amy -
You are quite missing the point. Women may become feminists for many different reasons. And that is by no means a bad thing - contrary to what you might believe, relatively few men (and certainly not me) want a return to the old days when men were men and women had no role in society beyond waiting on them. Times have changed, and equality among the genders is the way things are.
What I *am* saying is that there is a small segment of the female population that seems to have an attitude problem when it comes to men. And in my experience, some of the women within this small segment have had trouble finding men. This brings up a chicken-and-egg question; it's not evident whether these women developed anti-male attitudes after experiencing trouble finding men, or whether these attitudes were what scared off men.
As for Tatyana, she has gotten annoyed on a couple of prior occasions when I've mentioned the Woman Shortage - the number of women who can't find men is far, far smaller than the number of men who can't find women, no matter what shows like Sex in the City would lead one to believe. Her reaction to my comments, which by the way unquestionably true - leads me to believe that she's had/having romantic problems. That's just my thought, I could be completely wrong.
Oh, as for me, I'm married.

Posted by: Peter on September 27, 2005 12:52 PM



"Or are we likely to start seeing irreverent, kickass ads for some of these products?"

Why the Hell not? How about neon colors or plaids? Black lace?

I can tell you, however, I am not BLUE over the upgrade in feminine hygience products from the 1960's.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 27, 2005 01:43 PM



Now that someone finally mentioned the Virgin Mary, I'll play ditsy New Ager and bring up the chakras.
"The Blue Chakra: The FIFTH CHAKRA serves the throat, lungs, and thyroid. The healing effects of this color are cooling, and calming. "
So really, we should be seeing this color on advertising for cold products and iodine supplements.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 27, 2005 02:30 PM



I think blue is eye catching and pretty, and they use it for that reason---and of course that it isn't red. The fact that MBlowhard noticed is just a touch...wierd. Maybe you should have included "notices feminine hygiene ads" in the list of attributes which could be considered, er, gay. In fact, if you think it was odd that Scott Chaffin didn't mention his love of disco, then you also left one rather notable habit off your list!!

Can we all just leave the word "feminist" behind---yuck, the whole subject makes me nauseated, mostly those original founder women don't warrant the attention. It's sort of like continuing to go back to the same CIA agents to didn't realize the Soviet Union was collapsing to find out if Saddam had WMD. Oh...we did that. Plus, sooner or later the male hostility act: she-doesn't have-a-man thing always gets rather tiredly trotted out by the same men who missed the whole Soviet-Union-is-collapsing thing, and it all just goes into the sewer from there. But then we're back to tampons.

Posted by: annette on September 27, 2005 02:39 PM



Peter, it's pretty funny that you are saying that other people's ideology comes from their romantic frustrations, when you can't write two sentences without referring to your own inability to get laid. The women are out there, my man, cheer up and go get one! It will improve your mood, at least until the honeymoon period wears off.

The question is: now that blue is expanding its domain, what is poor pink doing now? Has it slinked off into some color ghetto, where it trades bitter commentary with gray? (I was about to say brown, but I think UPS has made that color upwardly mobile).

Posted by: MQ on September 27, 2005 02:44 PM



Maybe we should be talking about menopause, which I encounter more frequently now than periods.

You know, the women actually miss it (in some respects) when it's gone.

At my company, it's all pastels with nature themes these days. And, do you know, the colors are a pain in the ass to match, but the hexadecimal numbers have a sort of harmony: 0066cc 6600cc 0099cc. Try it. Weird, huh?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 27, 2005 03:02 PM



Shouting Thomas: You don't understand why women would want to triumph over their biology? Well, in some respects most women do - for example, biologically, as far as nature is concerned, the main purpose of women is to produce offspring. Most women, at some points in their lives, want to enjoy sex without the enormous investment/ responsibilities of pregnancy. Contraception allows women to triumph over that aspect of their biology.

And in terms of Michael's essay - for many women, menstrual periods are uncomfortable and can interfere with their usual activities & moods. Who the hell wants that? They didn't call it "the curse" for nothing. Those tampon ads that feature smiling, freewheeling, active women that are presumably menstruating are saying, "Use our product & it'll be smooth sailing all month!" Hence the success of tampons & meds that reduce the effects of (or pretty much eliminate)periods -they allow women to triumph over more unpleasant aspects of their biology.

Posted by: lee on September 27, 2005 03:26 PM



Ortho Tri-Cyclin is a birth control pill, so maybe Shouting Thomas has a point :-).

Having "become a woman" G-A-G, in the early 80's before the dawn of the blue packaging controversy (check out pregnancy tests, the majority are blue lines that lead to big changes), I can say that the sterile white packaging with the ocassional green accents definitely made me think hospital and sanitary -- and not in an empowering way. Blue is often seen as a serene, calming color which is the exact opposite of the physical challenges these products exist for. One other observation -- ADVIL and Aleve -- two of the most effective pain meds on the market for menstrual cramps -- are also in BLUE packaging.

But wait! Isn't VIAGRA a little blue pill?

Posted by: CocosSasha on September 27, 2005 04:30 PM



Shouting Thomas: "You know, the women actually miss it (in some respects) when it's gone."

Not all of them. Florence King got a call from the gas company, who were wondering if she had gone broke and couldn't afford to have her furnace on...

   "I haven't had financial difficulties. I've had the Change. My hot
   flashes keep me warm now. I've turned into my own furnace."

   "Oh..."

   I love those gulpy oh's...

But that's Florence King all over.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on September 27, 2005 04:36 PM



These last few comments touch on something that I think is also relevant: the color blue connotes qualities of coolness.

Posted by: beloml on September 27, 2005 05:18 PM



I'll extend the earlier points about gender-neutrality: Though blue is still the official color for little boy's clothing, it's become very gender-neutral in the corporate and professional worlds. Men wearing, say, yellow to the office is still a bit out of the mainstream, and women in, say, gray, might be perceived as a bit too masculine. Blue has become an inoffensive, non-gender-denoting color. So perhaps the ads resonate with women's desire to overcome biology (or at least gender), as Michael said.

Also: Blue is the least 'bodily' color, isn't it? Any other color (red, yellow, brown, purple, pink, even green) would actually acknowledge that menstruating is a bodily event. Nothing that is emitted from our bodies is actually blue. (I've also heard it remarked that there are no truly blue foods in nature, but I'm not sure about that.) So blue dissociates women's periods from their bodily origins and seems liberating?

Posted by: MC on September 27, 2005 06:03 PM



That last comment sounds the most plausible to me. Blue is a non-body kind of color: cool mountain streams and clear skies instead of icky, visceral, gooey, messy fluids. Not that I ever manufactured anything like that myself, of course.

I too wish the tampon/pad folks would splash some red around. DARK red, too. Jump right in and do it. I'd be impressed. In kind of the same way that I'm impressed when catalogs for "plus-size" (what a euphemism) women's clothes use actual real genuine slightly overweight females as models.

Also, before I had surgery to break up the adhesions caused by a horrific case of endometriosis, my periods (of red!) were unusually painful, and looking at a certain shade of blue (close to what they use in the ads you describe) actually seemed to make me feel the pain less intensely, or at least, to distract me in a pleasant way.

Posted by: Flutist on September 27, 2005 07:10 PM



"You know, the women actually miss it (in some respects) when it's gone."

Let's see:
1. Do I miss the cramps? NO
2. Do I miss the mess and ruined clothing? NO
3. Do I miss the inconvenience? NO
4. Do I miss the worry of pregnancy? NO
5. Do I miss the expense of all those nice blue products? NO
6. Do I miss the postponing of a romp in the hay? NO
7. Do I miss the black mood swings? NO
8. Do I miss all the above happening every 30 days? NO

Note to Shouting Thomas - NOT ONLY NO, BUT HELL NO!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 27, 2005 08:50 PM



Can't dredge up the source or even the year in my mental files, but I recall mention of a company that color-coded wrappers for "light-, mid-, and heavy-flow days", not with anything like a standard tricolor, but with three exotic and seemingly random shades. Something about that really freaked me out, but it's hard to pin down.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 28, 2005 01:23 AM



The question is: now that blue is expanding its domain, what is poor pink doing now? Has it slinked off into some color ghetto, where it trades bitter commentary with gray?

MQ, where've you been? The metrosexual juggernaut has made pink the new uh...blue the last few years. I can't walk out the door without seeing enough well-groomed douchebags in pink polos (with popped collars, of course) to choke a horse.

I recall mention of a company that color-coded wrappers for "light-, mid-, and heavy-flow days", not with anything like a standard tricolor, but with three exotic and seemingly random shades

Best that I can remember from time spent living with my ex-girlfriend, it was purple, lime green, and yellow. I also was a bit puzzled...

Posted by: king of carrot flowers on September 28, 2005 05:51 AM



They must have test-marketed all these ads, with other potential ads as well, to people in the demographic whom the product was aimed at. The blue ones were coming out ahead. This just begs the further question of why that happened. Why people have an inarticulable liking for some color over others in some context seems to me to be too deep to really understand, and you don't need to. You just need the empirical data -- this demographic, for this product, likes ads this color. Once the market leader has adopted this, others can piggyback and not have to do as much research to generate similar styles of ads.

But, deep down, why now, why blue? It is probably not possible to know the answer to this.

Posted by: Lexington Green on September 28, 2005 10:56 AM



This post reminds me of the ad campaign featuring film from the 60s of hippies dancing followed by the words: "Kotex was there." Those really freaked me out. WHen you walk about in public, you generally don't think about what someone might or might not have in their under pants: warts, little bits of toilet paper, tampons, etc.

Posted by: lindenen on September 28, 2005 05:46 PM



"WHen you walk about in public, you generally don't think about what someone might or might not have in their under pants"

Speak for yourself, lindenen ;-)

Posted by: MQ on September 28, 2005 08:10 PM






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