Tampax, Serena Hit Winning Volley

There really isn’t any excuse for a disciplined athlete and role model like Serena Williams to use the “F” word and threaten a line judge. But that’s what she did, for the world to see and hear, in early September at the U.S. Open, after the official (many felt mistakenly) called a foot fault on her serve. The tennis star lost the match, and many felt that after the dust-up, she’d also lose some of her endorsement deals, especially the one with P&G’s Tampax Pearl brand, which is mostly targeted at impressionable teens.

Even worse, print ads created by Leo Burnett showing Serena on court, actively whacking tennis balls at a prim Mother Nature — on hand to offer the player a “monthly gift” — were already appearing in September issues of magazines such as Teen Vogue.

But P&G has stood by her, and I think it’s a wise move.

Let’s put this in context. The outburst happened on the tennis court, during a critical point that she ended up losing. It’s not like Williams was driving drunk or walking around a club with an unlicensed gun in her pants. On the great scale of celebrity embarrassments, it’s about a three or four. (David Letterman is about a nine, but he handled it well, with humor and truth.) And given the relentless maw of the 24-hour news cycle, Serena’s miscue was forgotten pretty quickly.

On the plus side for the brand, the work constitutes a breakthrough, both in terms of diversity and the fact that a serious athlete would be associated with the product. I like the tone of the campaign — props to Leo Burnett and P&G for being direct and unembarrassed about a subject that has often been taboo. And let’s face it, for most girls, after a while, getting a period becomes a hassle, a mess and an embarrassment. I’ll never forget my health teacher in sixth grade (a guy with a pocket protector) talking about “commencing the menses,” which he pronounced like “census.” The girls were mortified.

Kudos for personifying Mother Nature as a happenin’, modern gal in a tailored, Chanel-like suit and slingbacks. It’s much cleverer than the usual gunnysack and wheat-in-her-hair approach. Dressed as a professional woman, she’s someone to take seriously; she just happens to hold a red-ribboned gift box instead of an attache case.
The casting of Ms. Nature is delightful — she’s Catherine Lloyd Burns, a great comic actress, and in pre-Serena executions of the campaign she’d ambush various unsuspecting young women, like one on the beach in a tiny white bikini. Girls do develop a strong brand preference in this category, and using a stylish Mo Nature is a cute way to get attention.

The message is that Tampax Pearl has special LeakGuard Protection, for those particularly worrisome moments. Specifically, the Serena print ad makes the claim that Tampax Pearl “stops leaks better than Playtex Sport.” A free sample is offered online.

I like the color-block look of the ad — green suit, red gift, yellow tennis ball, Serena in whites. The way the copy lines are stripped into the bottom of the page actually reminds me of old Virginia Slim ads (“You’ve come along way baby…”) Of course, VS was a longtime sponsor of women’s tennis. When Tambrands, (the name of the company before P&G acquired it in 1997) tried to sponsor a Women’s Tennis Association Tour in 1995, the offer — more than $10 million — was rejected. At that point, the idea of smoking was seen as less offensive and damaging to the sport than the reality that women bleed, I guess.