Protecting Whose Future?
Proctor & Gamble is a massive transnational company, producer of such name brands as Tide, Always, Tampax, Iams, Pampers, Duracell, Swiffer etc. The company owns at last count 86 well know household, and health & beauty brands. If you claim to not have a P&G product at home right now I do not believe you. P&G has never been shy about advertising their ‘charitable’ efforts- one of the more recent being the Tide Loads of Hope campaign which they have made the focus of several commercials. You may remember in late 2007 through 2008, under the name brands of Always and Tampax, P&G released a series of commercials highlighting their new Protecting Futures campaign. A nice play on words here I think as the company is setting out- according to their commercials and press releases- to protect young girls’ futures, dignity and clothing (from those embarrassing stains they claim the girls will otherwise suffer) in sub-Sahara Africa by providing them with name brand sanitary products. According to P&G many girls must stay home from school when menstruating because they lack proper sanitary protection and facilities at school and over time this absence leads to increased drop out rates. But if you want to help it is easy (or so P&G would like you to think). When purchasing your feminine care products choose Always or Tampax to help support their campaign to provide girls with the protection they need to stay in school and succeed.
Before even critically thinking about the actual campaign it seems vital to ask whether this is indeed a real issue at all. If so many girls have been missing school for so long because of their periods why are we just now hearing about it? Did we all miss women of sub-Sahara Africa asking for more options to deal with menstruation? No. The answer is that P&G isn’t lying, so much as they are not telling the whole truth- a common trait amongst all multinational companies (and politicians) in this postmodern world of ours. They essentially created their own truth- the facts are what they say are the facts and it appears few people are questioning it. According to a lone cynical article in the New York Times the ‘many’ girls who are missing school is in actuality 1 in 10; the average school days missed is about a week per month but amongst both girls and boys. Although there is some research to indicate that menstruation can conflict so to speak with attending school (when the school lacks proper bathrooms, not because the young woman lacks menstrual products) the more common reason is a lack of money in the family to buy a uniform, school supplies, or the children are needed at home.
Aside from the fact that P&G has essentially created this story in sub-Sahara Africa to preach to the rest of the ‘developed’ world about the ‘poor girls in primitive’ Africa, a very shallow and naïve interpretation of this commercial, and of the entire Protecting Futures campaign, would have viewers assuming that P&G is acting out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The commercials themselves were shot to illustrate a stereotypical, and I am sure fictitious, African village. They were designed to pull at the heart-strings of all women, especially those who have had the benefit of an education I am sure, to ensure the viewers are sucked into the P&G message. P&G is not engaging in this campaign to earn some karma points, they are in it to earn money because this is Procter & Gamble, a company with a stock portfolio worth about a hundred billion (yes billion with a B) dollars and we are living in a world ruled by global capitalism. P&G is only seeing dollar signs and millions of potential customers in the relatively untapped market that is sub-Sahara Africa.
According to the company, their goal is to reach one million girls by 2012. ‘Reaching’ here seems to imply that they will be distributing their products to one million girls in sub-Sahara Africa, end of story. However the campaign is not that simple, not only is P&G trying to force these girls into using their products but to do so they are also attempting to alter the very communities the girls live in to ensure they will accept their modern (and therefore supposedly superior) products.
Traditionally in most areas of sub-Sahara Africa young women will use pads composed of rags and camel skin- they are reusable if the women have access to clean water and sanitation services (if anything the clean water and sanitation is the blockade for these women). Although I myself admit that disposable is always easier, it is not always better. It is easier to throw away the plastic flatware than to wash the real silverware after dinner but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right choice. P&G will be providing for free, for five years only, disposable products. Which is where this campaign begins to become complex- the communities P&G want to distribute to are not set up to handle large amounts of waste products due to the lack of sanitation and refuse collection and containment facilities. So what is a giant corporation to do? In the case of P&G they have allocated money from the campaign to build girls only bathrooms allowing them a place to change their disposable products, and are piping in water (sometimes at a distance of over two miles) to install indoor plumbing. Although I feel that the addition of clean water and bathrooms to schools is a plus (maybe this should be the sole focus of the campaign if they are feeling truly ‘charitable’), but P&G had to find a way to not only dispose of their products safely but to do so in a manner that will not upset many of the students, because in many areas where P&G want to operate there is a strongly held belief that exposed blood can be used to cast spells. Undaunted by this cultural difference, P&G devised a solution: they trained the teachers to incinerate used products in a specially designed collection box. Yes, they are going to have to burn all of the used pads from the one million girls. If I had to do this for myself every month, I would stop using these products immediately but P&G still maintains that their products will have a positive impact on these girls and therefore all of this elaborate planning is worth it.
And why will it be worth it? Not because these girls will be able to keep up in their studies but because P&G sees a large payoff at the end of the campaign. Not only do they count on more American women purchasing their products to help support a company that supports a ‘great cause’ but the free product distribution will only last through 2012. After these girls complete their education (thanks to their Always Maximum Protection Ultra Thin with Flexi-Wings pads and not due to their intelligence or grades I am sure) they will supposedly become paying customers who will want to continue using P&G products. In addition while still receiving the free products P&G is hoping their female relatives will want to purchase the products for themselves.
P&G is not the first company to try to create a market for ‘Western’ items in Africa. In the late 1970’s Nestle, through heavy marketing and free distribution of baby formula, began convincing many mothers in Africa and other ‘less developed’ areas, that their infant formula was superior to breast milk. This was not a misguided information exchange on the companies part, Nestle wanted their money and they flat-out lied to millions of woman to try to get it. Even when given free powder formula mix, most of the woman lacked sanitary water for preparation, or because they could literally not read the instructions (in most cases they were printed in English only) they over diluted the formula. Many communities saw drastic increases in diarrhea, gastrointestinal diseases and malnutrition amongst the infants receiving the formula and unfortunately many infants did not survive or were worse off than if they had been fed breast milk.
Although I think you would be hard pressed to argue that using disposable sanitary products will cause the severe health issues as seen in the case of Nestle (although I am sure it will cause an increase in the already too numerous environmental issues of the continent cause by ‘helpful’ corporations), P&G has the same goals and general marketing ideas in practice- convince those in the ‘underdeveloped’ world that their modern products are superior to traditional practices (which are often not suitable, i.e. profitable, to a capitalist society) and through marketing and free samples make them want the ‘superior’ product. In both cases these companies targeted women, claiming that their products will help them live better, even easier, lives. And despite the feminist spin P&G has put on the campaign, they did not ask for input from the very women they are hoping to ‘help’. This is not just a cynical analysis of the situation- focusing heavily on marketing towards youth is a common, albeit immoral way companies operate to enforce their Western ideals on others. Case in point, in reaction to the Protecting Futures campaign one Simmons School of Management Professor made a statement which I believe sums up a large part of why P&G is going so far to ensure young school age women will turn into capitalist consumers (I mean they just as easily could have developed a campaign to help adult women receive ‘protection’ to ensure they are able to attend a job outside of the home etc.), “When you want to change a culture, it’s a good strategy to start with the younger generation”; a true and ominous statement spoken from a spot on developmentalist perspective.