Hey Girls, a social enterprise brand that sells and donates period products, set out to create “the angriest film ever made” in a campaign fighting period poverty in the UK.
The "Seeing red" campaign, by Adam & Eve/DDB, aims to invoke anger and encourage viewers to take action against period poverty – the term referring to a lack of access to menstrual products due to financial or social constraints. In the UK, one in 10 girls cannot afford period products, but this number increased to about three in 10 during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the brand.
Founded in 2018, Hey Girls tackles this issue by donating a pack of sanitary products to those in need for every pack that it sells. Its products are available in retailers including Asda, Co-op and Waitrose.
The visceral and often chaotic ad follows a young girl and other characters, including a transgender person, who struggle with period poverty. It is based on the idea that anger is a motivating emotion, so every component of the film, from the colour scheme to the music to the actors, was chosen or created specifically to make the audience angry.
“Every frame [of the film] was poured over to get maximum anger,” A&E/DDB chief creative officer Richard Brim said.
The creative team consulted Dr Philip Gable, a psychologist who researches emotions and their motivational aspects, to develop the ad and make it more anger-inducing. They also tested different versions among users to amp up the effects.
“For most people anger feels unpleasant, but that benefits us because whatever is causing us to feel unpleasant makes us want to change that. What’s unique about anger compared to other unpleasant emotions is that anger has this tendency to make you want to address the obstacle,” Dr Gable explained. “It’s easy to make people angry, but we wanted people to feel angry in the right way to make them tackle period poverty.”
The team learned some unexpected techniques to invoke anger while making this ad – an important one being that they should not actually show any angry people or reactions on screen, Milla McPhee, former head of strategy and planning at A&E/DDB, explained.
“We learned with the psychologist [Dr Gable] that at first, you might think showing angry faces or people getting angry in the film would make the viewers angry. But actually that causes you to withdraw or have a defence reaction, rather than an approach motivated reaction,” McPhee said.
“We changed so much in the film as a result of that. The main character is a young girl you strongly empathise with and it makes you really mad seeing her experience, rather than just seeing angry people.”
This campaign is also about “reclaiming” the emotion of anger, which is often seen as one to be avoided, especially among girls and women, A&E/DDB global creative director Laura Rogers said.
“Women are so often encouraged not to be angry – it’s a narrative we’re so used to hearing. But that cuts off this entire channel of motivating emotion,” Rogers said.
“This whole thing is about saying anger is good when you use it to challenge things. It can get stuff done. In this case we want to use anger to fight period poverty.”
Advertisers also tend to avoid anger in marketing campaigns, tending instead “to use positive emotions to generate behaviour change,” McPhee added. “But actually, it can be far more motivating to piss people off.”
Living in the subconscious
The work was written by Miles Carter, art directed by Helen Balls and directed by Margot Bowman through Prettybird. The7stars is the media agency.
Like many other people, Bowman said anger is “an emotion I’ve been feeling a lot in 2020 and 2021, but not knowing what to do about it because a lot of things I’ve been angry about are way bigger than me.” She was about to sign up for boxing lessons to channel some of that anger when she received the Hey Girls script.
Through making the film, she realised: “Often anger is not an emotion that disenfranchised people are given permission to feel. As a woman, queer person or person of colour, being angry isn’t an option because you’ll be demonised for that emotion.
"But anger is a fuel and shows us what we need to change,” she said. “Thinking about anger in a positive way was an exciting part of the process.”
Bowman said she approached the film more like a “music video” rather than a typical ad to immerse viewers in the characters’ experiences.
“It’s an immersive piece, so you really get into the protagonist’s world but in a way that you never would have expected to. You’re living in her subconscious and her conscience,” she said. “I never wanted it to feel didactic, like we were teaching people something.”
Important to Bowman and the rest of the team, the Hey Girls ad ends by providing a simple, concrete action for viewers to channel their own anger: buying the brand’s products so that it can donate more of them to people in need.
“We may not be able to create world peace but we can make a serious dent in people who are experiencing period poverty in the UK. That’s a really simple and powerful idea,” Bowman said.
‘The situation has worsened’
Awareness of period poverty has grown in recent years thanks to other activist campaigns that have prompted some action by the UK government, such as the decision to abolish the “tampon tax” – sales taxes on menstrual products – at the beginning of 2021. However, the issue remains taboo and widespread in the UK, Hey Girls founder Celia Hodson said.
“There is more awareness, but given how much coverage the tampon tax and period poverty received in the media last year and political announcements in the UK and Scotland, people believe period poverty is no longer an issue. Unfortunately, big statements and what happens at the grassroots level don't always align,” Hodson said.
“We have 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK and we know the situation has worsened since March last year.
“Hey Girls has donated over 15 million period products to people in need in the UK and we sent over one million care packages directly to people's homes when the pandemic was at its peak.”
The UK government’s “period product scheme” provides free period products to learners who need them. This scheme will continue into 2021 but “the budget per school is unrealistically low” and does not cover all educational institutions, Hodson said.
“Hey Girls receives messages daily from schools asking for free products and we know that teachers are still personally buying pads and tampons for children in need,” she added.
Bowman said a major goal of this campaign is to break the taboo and shame surrounding period poverty.
“Period poverty is not a mainstream issue and there’s so much taboo around menstruation,” she said. “The secrecy and the shame is what has stopped this being a major public issue. If we didn’t have shame, we’d be living in a totally different world and period poverty wouldn’t exist.”