Menstruating women in India are often subject to long-held societal taboos about what they can do during their periods. A 2014 survey of 1,105 women and 202 men across 10 Indian cities revealed that more than half the urban women still behaved in ways prescribed by such age-old beliefs.
These range from washing their hair only after the fourth day of the menses (65%), not watering plants during periods (54%), or even touching pickle jars (59%). There were regional variations – 70% of women from Northern India felt they shouldn’t touch pickle. Similar taboos involving setting curd (48%), sharing a room with your husband (48%) and touching the masala box (55%) were also prevalent in Western India. In Eastern India, 86% bought their sanitary napkins wrapped in newspapers and a similar percentage of men felt more embarrassed to buy a sanitary napkin than to purchase condoms.
“They are not allowed to step inside the temple or even touch any idol, no entering the kitchen or touching the drinking water or watering the plants, lest they pollute it with the negative energy they are emanating while on their periods,” P&G found. “In some families, the menstruating female member is confined to a separate room, ensuring she does not come into contact with anything or anybody in the family.”
While P&G was carrying out its formal research, the ad agency BBDO India was informally exploring period-related taboos. “I have grown up with sisters, but never realized these taboos exist,” said Josy Paul, its chairman and chief creative director. “It was only after the fireside chat that we started to think about really making a difference.”
That prohibition on touching the pickle jar just jumped out at them.”We felt ‘Touch the Pickle’ had the right tone and intrigue to lead the taboo conversation. It was light, odd and not intense. We thought it was a great metaphor for all the period taboos.”
The “Touch the Pickle” campaign really had nothing to do with sanitary napkins, said the Indian trade publication Afaqs in March 2015. It was “a silent cry of revolution, asking women to break out of the period-related taboos that they have grown up with”.
The campaign had three phases. The first phase was the survey, followed by discussions in public forums. Ad buying reflected this public discussion. For example, when Parineeti Chopra refused to answer a journalist’s question till he mentioned the word ‘period’ (his original choice was ‘problem’), the media/brand team linked it to the campaign.
The second phase was the film Don’t touch the pickle launched on digital and television platforms, along with front page ads in leading dailies in six cities, and the third phase sought public participation. Women from all walks of life shared their own ‘taboo stories’, anthropologists talked about the root and history of these taboos, and influencers such as Menstrupedia’s founder Aditi Gupta, film actors Mandira Bedi, Tanvi Azmi and Shraddha Kapoor, and medical expert Dr. Suneela Garg came on board.
Social entrepreneur Aditi Gupta’s TED talk was incredibly powerful. She studied menstrual awareness – or lack thereof – as a Ford Foundation research scholar. Along with her husband Tuhin Paul, she designed effective educational tools for girls and schools, including a hugely popular comic book.
Menstrupedia’s website receives 200,000 visitors per month and their comic book is available in Hindi and English. Fifteen schools across India use the books to educate school girls about periods, and the books have been shipped to Uruguay, the US and the UK, Sweden, Philippines, Nepal, Pakistan and Nigeria.
The final ‘Touch the Pickle’ campaign saw direct participation from 2.9 million women. The film received over 1.9 million true views on YouTube. The press events in top four markets, features and authored columns garnered earned media worth USD 6.1 million and 1,200 million earned impressions.
Not only did it spark a popular revolution, but it won one of advertising’s highest honours – a Grand Prix in the recently-introduced Glass Lion category at Cannes.
Other brands like Sofy and Stayfree joined in the conversation with digital campaigns. Mainline actors who traditionally never endorsed sanitary pads started becoming the face of these products. Conversations around menstruation increased on social media.
Said Whisper India: “We believe that the social context of our consumers inspires creative thinking and creative communication impacts society. As marketers, we can impact and shape social fabric by an in-depth understanding of her social context and our brands can help her achieve what she wants. If we demonstrate that we understand her and provide solutions that make a difference to her daily life, she will trust us. It is important to build trust and that is the only way to build brands. Our campaigns recognise this truth, especially around women empowerment and the consumer’s need for social change.”
‘Touch the Pickle – Marketing gender equality’. Under the Influence, CBC radio, Mar. 23, 2023
How Procter & Gamble India touched the pickle, hearts and lives. AFAQS, Jul. 7, 2015
Whisper – Touch the Pickle. Campaigns of the World. Jun. 26, 2015.
How the “Touch the pickle” campaign touched hearts. The Wise Walkers, Feb. 4, 2019
P&G Whisper’s ‘Touch the Pickle’ wins Glass Grand Prix. Ad Age, Jun. 23, 2015