With every new generation comes an increased comfort with broaching taboo topics in public and with their peers. The marketing and advertising world has slowly caught up,  with existing legacy brands becoming bolder and more direct about what they do and sell and a new crop of direct-to-consumer and retail start-ups reinventing how we communicate around formerly taboo subjects. Everything from tampons to birth control to women’s health products and services and erectile dysfunction medications are finally beginning to shed their coded language and inferred meanings. 

For years, brands offering reproductive and sexual health-related products and services have used indirect messaging to avoid plainly saying what they do. However, these companies have begun to embrace directly communicating with their audiences. They have slowly started to shift the discussion about their products and services by using words and phrases previously considered taboo for advertisements.

Who is Driving this Shift?

Phexxi, a hormone-free birth control gel, has been one of the latest entrants to embrace a more direct approach in their marketing and advertising. For instance, they open their latest commercial with the phrase, “welcome to my vagina,” and the rest of their advertisements feature visual references to vaginas, discussions about sex, and have a strong and undeniable focus on women’s empowerment. These messages break a lot of the old rules of how to market and communicate birth control products by directly talking about the product and its uses. 


Even a simple biological term like “vagina,” which has long been considered off-limits in media, is now a pivotal part of the strategy to how a brand like Phexxi communicates. Phexxi is flipping the script by directly talking about their product and how consumers will benefit. This removes any confusion and works to capture their audiences’ attention.

Hims (and Hers) are also great examples of brands that offer a wide range of health services and products (hair loss, mental health, erectile dysfunction, sexual wellness, etc.) for men and women and who have led the way in speaking about these previously taboo subjects with a more direct and conversational tone. A recent ad for their erectile dysfunction services ends with “Get hard or your money back.” While erectile dysfunction commercials are certainly not a new phenomenon,  this is one of the first to be so direct with the audience about their product’s purpose. 

Shock Value? Or Something Else?

As expected, a small portion of the public discourse accuses brands like Hims and Phexxi of using shock value to sell their products and services. Shock value has been used in advertising for ages, especially by associations and organizations trying to make a point and promote causes. Some recent examples of shock advertising include the following ad from Sandy Hook Promise:

Consumer brands use shock advertising in ways that don’t involve social causes as well. Burger King is one of the more well-known brands to push the boundaries of what’s expected, with a recent example including a stomach-turning timelapse of a rotting burger to demonstrate their product’s freshness. In March 2021, Burger King UK launched their much-criticized International Women’s Day campaign, where they boldly declared the “women belong in the kitchen,” following it by promoting a scholarship designed to increase the number of women in the cooking profession.

The purpose of advertisements like these is to grab your attention by appealing to strong emotions like anger, disgust, surprise, and sadness. The controversy generated by these advertisements is almost always a part of the marketing plan. Shock advertising tends to bring more eyes to the brand and feeds into the adage that “all PR is good PR.”

So are Phexxi and Hims employing shock advertising? It would depend on who you ask. Sexual health and sex, in general, are considered taboo by some and acceptable by an increasingly large portion of the population including the vast majority of Gen-Z and Millennials. Advertisers and marketers tend to err on the safe side and avoid anything that could inflame any audience, intended or otherwise. Cultural and societal norms tend to dictate what we consider acceptable, and in the United States, where these products are advertised, there is no one set norm. The U.S. is a melting pot of cultures, which means what one person finds unthinkable is considered permissible by their friends.  

It’s also important to consider that the products and services these companies are promoting appeal to a broad audience. Approximately 65% of American women between 15 and 44 utilize at least one contraceptive measure. About 52% of American men experience some form of erectile dysfunction. In both cases, a majority of the population stands are impacted by issues that these products address. The shock value aspect of these commercials can be negated when you think about the sheer number of potential consumers. 

Is This A Good or Bad Thing?

Brands are becoming bolder and more direct with their advertising to demystify what they aim to accomplish with their products and services. There are arguments for and against this approach, and neither side is right or wrong. It’s essential to appeal to your intended audience while trying not to alienate others. It’s equally important not to offend or miss the mark in what you are trying to communicate. Finding a balance between attention-grabbing, direct, inoffensive, and broadly appealing is a juggling act, and some of the balls might drop. It’s essential to figure out what to prioritize and what is important to your brand values and goals.

How Can YMC Help?

Are you looking to revamp your communications strategy? Want to make a bold statement? At YMC, we specialize in connecting brands with Gen-Z and Millennial consumers, and we’d be happy to share our wealth of knowledge with you. Contact us today!

How Super Bowl LV Will Be Different for Advertisers and Fans

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entertainment industry in a big way over the past year or so. The NFL, specifically, was forced to make extreme adjustments to many of its regular season games in order to ensure the safety of its players, staff, and fans. Despite all of that, the NFL is determined to move forward with its biggest game of the year—the Super Bowl.

Pending any major changes, Super Bowl LV will take place on Sunday, February 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. Because the COVID-19 pandemic is ever-changing, the NFL has made it clear that their plans are subject to change up until game day. In fact, the league approved a contingency plan in November 2020 that allows the big game to be delayed by up to four weeks, if necessary. 

As you can imagine, the Super Bowl will be a bit different this year. Here’s a breakdown of what we know about what football’s biggest event will look like during a pandemic.   

The Event Will Have a Limited Seating Capacity

To comply with local and state guidelines, the NFL announced that it will plan for a 33% seating capacity for the big game.

Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has a maximum seating capacity of around 66 thousand people. This means that only around 22 thousand fans will have the opportunity to watch the event live. Of the 22,000 attendees, 7,500 of them will be vaccinated healthcare workers who were invited to attend by the NFL at no cost.

Fans will be seated in pods, which will be positioned six feet apart, and everyone in attendance will be required to wear face masks. The NFL will provide every fan with a KN95 mask upon entry. 

The Halftime Show Could Occur Off-site 

Grammy Award-winning artist The Weeknd is set to perform during the Super Bowl LV halftime show.

The halftime show is a large production that requires a considerable amount of staffing, which makes things challenging in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, while the final logistics have yet to be announced, the league is looking into safer alternatives to minimize risk. One potential alternative would be an offsite halftime show bubble that would allow the league to isolate the fans, players, and coaches from the halftime show staff.

Throughout the regular football season, the NFL banned all on-field entertainment. If the league maintains these restrictions, fans in attendance may have to watch the halftime performance on television like everyone at home. 

Media Day Will Occur Virtually

For the first time in Super Bowl history, the event’s famous media day will be fully virtual. The event will now be held on the evening of Monday, February 1. This new, virtual format means that fans aren’t likely to see costumed reporters or hear the usual barrage of awkward interview questions that fuel internet memes.

Another benefit of a virtual media day is that teams won’t be required to arrive on-site as far in advance of the big game as they usually do (at least a week in advance is typical).

In fact, the Kansas City Chiefs have already announced that they won’t fly to Tampa until the day before Super Bowl LV. The organization is hoping these travel changes will allow them to continue with their current COVID-19 testing routine and minimize the potential risk of their players coming in contact with fans before the big day.

The Impact on Super Bowl LV Advertising for Brands 

These drastic changes to Super Bowl LV don’t simply impact the NFL—they also impact the brands that advertise during this major national event. 

Last year, the 77 highly coveted Super Bowl commercial spots were completely booked by Thanksgiving. In November 2020, CBS still had dozens of commercial spots left. In fact, Super Bowl commercial regulars like Budweiser, Coke, and Pepsi have already announced that they’ll bow out this year.

We believe brands were hesitant to book commercial spots this year for a variety of reasons. Here’s a breakdown.

Humor May Not Play Well This Year

Super Bowl commercials are notoriously humorous. But, during a global pandemic that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in our country, brands may be concerned that this type of advertising will appear tone deaf. On the flip side, brands may also be concerned that a somber commercial may come off as dark and depressing.

After a Difficult Financial Year, Ad Costs May Be Hard to Swallow

This year, a 30-second Super Bowl commercial spot costs $5.5 million. This is a huge expense for any brand under normal circumstances. But, after a difficult financial year for so many brands, the price tag may have been a difficult sell to management.

There’s a Risk of Cancellation

As with any big event during a global pandemic, there’s always a risk that the Super Bowl could be unexpectedly canceled. While CBS has promised to refund brands for their commercial spots should this occur, this refund wouldn’t include any budget that a brand has already put towards commercial production. So, brands could end up losing money if things go south. 

Super Bowl Commercials

Despite Concerns, Super Bowl LV Commercials Are Booked

If Super Bowl commercials are your favorite part of the big game, don’t fret! On January 27, ViacomCBS announced that they’d finally booked all of the open commercial spots despite the initial drop in demand by brands. 

The Super Bowl May Be Just What We Need

Given the challenges of the past year, it seems as though the Super Bowl—despite its pandemic-related adjustments—will serve as a welcome distraction for football (and commercial) fans across the country! We can’t wait to see how it goes.

Is your brand looking to reach Millennial + Gen-Z audiences in new ways? YMC can help! Contact us today for more information.

COVID-19 On Campus: A Reflection On Campus Marketing in 2020 and Predictions for 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the lives of people around the world. This has been especially true for college students.

So much of the traditional college experience hinges on interpersonal connections and shared spaces. But, given the nature of the COVID-19 virus, colleges and universities have had to take things in a drastically different direction without much warning. Institutions have been forced to adapt to a new normal, which put the health and safety of students first. 

In-person classes were replaced with Zoom lecture marathons and countless hours in front of dual screens; crowded dining halls and student unions were forfeited for virtual events and distanced social interactions; and much more.

As you can imagine, these sudden changes also drastically impacted campus marketing efforts. At YMC, we adapted our campus marketing strategies to engage students no matter where they’re living, studying, and sharing in 2020.

With 2020 in the rear view mirror, we wanted to share some of the valuable things we’ve learned and our predictions about what campus marketing will look like in 2021.

Every School Is Different

After unexpected school shutdowns in the spring 2020 semester, colleges and universities had a bit more time when strategizing their opening plans for fall 2020. One of the main things we noticed was the wide variance in the operating status of campuses based on state, local, and university-driven COVID-19 regulations.

Leading up to the fall semester, we referenced The Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of campus reopening models daily to stay on top of the national landscape. On the local level, we found that our YMC student network and ambassadors provide the most accurate information regarding students’ locations (living remote, on, or off campus) and behaviors. 

We’ve leveraged this information to adapt our campaigns in real time and adjust expectations by campus. We always treat each school individually when managing college marketing programs; and in this situation, input from students helped us optimize what we could safely execute for the best results. 

Maybelline No Touch Product Sampling Example

“No Touch” Sampling Can Be Highly Effective

As we studied the varied reopening plans for the fall 2020 semester, we found that many campuses selected to offer adjusted in-person or hybrid learning models. In these cases, we found that working with local students to understand the protocols associated with activating on campus, the access level to students, and the overall comfort with face-to-face (always masked) interactions has been beneficial.

For our Maybelline program, we worked with college ambassadors to distribute pre-packed product sampling bags and gifts to on- and off-campus housing complexes and outdoor gatherings. This varied from pre-COVID interactions where Maybelline ambassadors offered students high-touch product interaction and trial experiences. 

Because in-person brand interactions were so limited in 2020, students expressed increased excitement and appreciation for Maybelline’s efforts to reach them during a difficult time. Product sampling bags reached thousands of students and resulted in over 10k product link views and a 5% conversion rate to purchase.

Pentel Digital Event Example

Digital Events Work

Digital events have also been successful, as they’ve enabled our brand partners and ambassadors  to provide brand experiences to broader audiences.

We found that college students are most likely to participate in events hosted after 7 PM EST on weekdays and early-to-mid afternoon on the weekends. Digital fatigue is real and this timing provided students with a break in between classes and another virtual activity. Meeting platforms (such as Zoom and Google Hangouts), microsites, and Instagram Live have offered the best interaction with this audience.

In our work with Pentel, we transitioned a longstanding in-person art experience into an online format and encouraged students to relax and create in their own space. We partnered with Pentel to host a 3-night Pentel Sketch Session event series featuring calligraphy, watercolor, and line drawing classes with featured artists. Hosting these events digitally allowed Pentel to bring in experts to showcase skills and answer art-related career questions with college students at scale. 


Join the #AerieRealpositivity challenge, uplift each other and @aerie will donate to America’s Food Fund! #aeriereal #aeriepartner #aerieambassador

♬ 100% Real Love – PopUpGirl

Social Media Is Essential

While Gen-Z has been using TikTok for a few years, the pandemic and stay-at-home culture have accelerated mass adoption and endless scroll time on the platform. We found success in encouraging ambassadors to leverage short-form video clips on TikTok and Instagram to further engage their followers and feature brand products. Students were able to amplify existing brand challenges or create their own by pulling from the latest trends.

Our brand ambassadors played an important role in the launch of Aerie’s first TikTok challenge. The #AerieRealPositivity hashtag challenge created a movement around expressing yourself and sharing positivity at home. With the amplification of a paid campaign and celebrity role model support, this campaign generated 6,600+ user-generated videos with 2.1 billion views. 

Looking Ahead at Campus Marketing in 2021

As you can see, we’ve learned a lot in 2020. And, while the pandemic isn’t over yet, we’re feeling an increased sense of optimism about the year to come. 

Now that colleges and universities have more than 10 months of prevention and testing experience under their belts and the COVID-19 vaccine is in early stages of distribution in the U.S., some institutions are preparing for an increase in in-person and hybrid course offerings this spring.

As we begin planning for this year (and beyond!), we wanted to share a few predictions about what campus marketing may look like in 2021. Please note that the following are subject to national, state, and local policy, as well as CDC guidance.

January – March 2021

The early part of 2021 will likely look very similar to the past few months, with limited in-person events and classes.

Late March – April 2021

In the late months of the spring 2021 semester, we expect campuses with in-person and hybrid learning models to begin to explore the possibilities of holding outdoor, in-person events and activities. This will likely be especially true at warm weather schools in the South and West regions of the U.S..

Fall 2021

The fall 2021 semester presents the best opportunity for a potential return to “regular” campus life. At this time, it’s likely that the health and safety precautions introduced in 2020 will remain at the forefront for the next several years.

In summary, we recommend that brands continue to lean on digital events and social tactics to engage students in the early part of the year. As the weather starts to get warmer and students spend more time outdoors, “no touch” sampling can resume and the possibility of highly regulated in-person events can be explored. The summer months should allow for more in-person brand engagement, while full-on experiential activations, mobile tours, and student-led events are more likely to return in the fall 2021 semester.

How YMC Can Help

If you’re interested in learning more about college marketing during this unique time, we’re here to help. At YMC, we’ve been connecting brands with 15- to 29-year-old consumers for two decades—we’d be happy to share our wealth of knowledge with you. Contact us today!