Olly ends up in advertising brou-hoo-ha

Earlier this month, Unilever’s vitamin and supplements brand Olly launched a product line in Canada called Modern Women’s that Leslie Golts, general manager, health and wellbeing collective, said “caters to the unaddressed needs in women’s sexual health.”

It consists of three products: Lovin’ Libido, which is designed to support sexual drive and sensation; Happy Hoo-Ha, supporting vaginal health; and Beat the Bloat, which addresses digestion woes or gas. According to Golts, Olly’s core audience is women in search of “shame-free and empowering self-care.”

But marketing the product line proved challenging, with Unilever saying in a release that it was “given the side-eye” when it tried to book ads featuring the word “vagina.” It also said that ads using the Happy Hoo-Ha product name were also rejected.

“One of the unexpected obstacles we encountered was the denial of the way we would showcase the female body,” said Golts in an email interview. “While we were using it as a light-hearted and educational way to break the ice and start a conversation around making women’s health more approachable, some platforms deemed it too suggestive.”

In a LinkedIn post, Unilever’s digital associate brand manager, health and wellbeing Roisin Collins, said launching the campaign was “challenging” but that the brand’s intention is to “break down the taboos and shame around women’s health.”

Unilever did not specify which companies rejected the ads. The Message contacted three of the country’s leading out-of-home advertising companies—Astral Media, Pattison Outdoor, and Branded Cities—but received no response.

Unilever’s PR agency Edelman also provided The Message with a mock-up for an ad that it intended to run on the side of a building. It shows pink curtains being pulled aside to create an obvious representation of a vulva, and the brand name inside.

The PR representative said that particular execution was rejected, although it was used at the OLLY launch event, and does appear briefly in an Instagram post by influencer Shan Boodran—who was recruited to deliver a keynote speech about women’s health at the launch.

Golts said that the event came about after the brand was forced to “rethink” the Olly launch.

“We doubled down on the conversation starter and decided to host an event where we held an open and honest dialogue around women’s sexual health,” she said. “By emphasizing the importance of empowerment, inclusivity, and respectful representation, we were able to move forward with the campaign despite the setbacks.”

Unilever did eventually run a series of transit ads in Toronto and Vancouver that included streetcar wraps and bus shelters. They featured shots of the Olly products, accompanied by copy including “Keep your vagina vibing” and “I want a happy hoo-ha.” The campaign also features some street-specific references, such as “Keep your belly Wellesley” and “Probiotics for your Spadina.” All of the ads featured the tagline “Self-care for everywhere.”

Olly has used provocative out-of-home in its marketing in other countries. Last year, well-known Canadian-American gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter, who has 364,000 followers on Twitter, called out the brand for running ads that featured the message “Probiotics for your panty hamster” (it’s not clear if that phrase was used in the ads submitted in Canada).

In some ways, the Olly story represents another example of how, despite advertising’s notorious sexualization and objectification of women, the industry remains reluctant to talk about women’s health and women’s bodies in a forthright and matter-of-fact manner.

Just this year, period products brand Bodyform shared a list of  “The 40 words you can’t say” outlining words and phrases that are routinely censored on social platforms like Facebook and TikTok, which, in addition to “vagina” also include “lactation,” “boobs,” “tampon”and “cervix.”

“Menstrual health shouldn’t be censored,” said Bodyform in an accompanying post. “It makes important subjects, that are already taboo, almost impossible to talk about. It’s affecting our lives and even our health.”

But longtime Canadian creative Karen Howe, now a member of the Cannes Lions Advisory Board, said she’s not sure that putting the word “vagina” on a billboard is necessary when it comes to women’s sexual health. “I don’t see any billboards that say the word penis, nor show it,” she said.

“I think to speak to such a very specific audience about such a specific topic, brilliantly, surgically deployed media is the way to go,” she added. “Vagina on a billboard seems unnecessary, and likely a poor media spend.”

And Nancy Vonk, former co-chief creative officer at Ogilvy, and one of the leaders behind the “Real Beauty” platform for the Unilever-owned Dove brand, called the campaign’s use of alternative words for vagina “nonsensical,” especially since the word appears on the product’s label.

“It drives me crazy that advertising is always one step forward and two steps back on the subject of women’s health,” she said. “Somehow we’re still supposed to feel embarrassed/ashamed of how our bodies work, and/or not upset some men’s delicate sensibilities by referring to our anatomy and physiology plainly.

At the same time, we’re expected to be happy to be objectified in advertising, movies etc. etc. What decade are we in? What century? What country?”

Chris Powell