Saying the Quiet Part Loud: Broaching Taboo Topics in Advertising

BY Hannah Hickman

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!

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