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Taboos 2020: Six Silence-Breakers

COVID-19 darkened and restricted aspects of many lives in 2020. But the crisis also threw fresh light into dark corners, perhaps even accelerating the tackling of certain taboo topics. Let’s take a look at how advertising is helping to break the silence in these six areas.


Isolation and premature/unnecessary/unexpected closing-down of people’s life enjoyment suddenly went ‘viral’ as huge swathes of the population were affected. A condition frequently borne in sad silence began to find a voice – and some very different voices to suit the new demographics.

Trojan Condoms kicked in early on with a spot of humour to protect against lockdown lonely lust

The group most commonly associated with loneliness is seniors. This year, Age UK paired with Cadbury’s to represent older people better as just that - older, people, rather than a separate tribe that should be allowed to become invisible.

Contrastingly, the US Marine Corps drew attention to Gen Z’s loneliness through tech with this ‘Battle to Belong’ recruitment campaign. 

And Spain’s Christmas National Lottery ‘El Gordo’ spot (below), as eagerly awaited as Britain’s John Lewis ad, delivered a broad-ranging retro campaign portraying various situations that have challenged friends, lovers and family over the decades, coming right up to date with a message pertaining to loneliness that can and should always be poignant but is likely to be more widely appreciated this year as many more people have experienced unexpected loneliness.   


Erectile dysfunction

Men experiencing erectile dysfunction (ED) can sometimes take years to seek help. Emerging efforts to de-stigmatise the topic include the 2018 ‘get eddie’ London Underground poster campaign for Viagra Connect, and the hims images. 

In 2020, Viagra Connect made a quantum leap with this two-minute animated film, ‘Love Story’, presenting the emotional effects of erectile dysfunction on a young couple, with references to the stresses of modern life that can contribute to ED.

The approach separates the issue from perceptions of 'masculinity' and presents it as a relatable, common health problem that needs to be recognised and addressed. Proclaimers fans will instantly know the lyrics, from the Scottish brothers' landmark song '500 Miles' whose chorus is often boomed around sports arenas as a Scotland anthem in moments of triumph. This version takes a gentler angle by focusing on the words to suit the overall message of love as opposed to sex. 

Domestic violence

Alarms were raised early on in lockdown that domestic violence could rise as a result of restrictions imposed. In April, reassurance that help was still available was presented in this 40-second Scottish campaign; Romania's domestic violence charity ANAIS put out an #IsolateViolence campaign which highlighted the problem by using imagery associated with the contagion and spread of the coronavirus; and the US National Domestic Violence Hotline made a call-to-action with the non-gender specific #ListeningFromHome spot.

In September, the Canadian Women’s Foundation illustrated how women can silently signal that they are in an abusive situation with this campaign, #SignalForHelp.


The Black Lives Matter #BLM movement of 2020 was an accelerator for awareness-building.

US sports giant Nike turned its galvanising message of 'Just Do It' on its head in the wake of protests across the USA sparked by the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer. The sombre campaign met with a mixed reaction, ranging from calls for Nike to pay/treat its employees properly, to accusations of jumping on the 'brandwagon', to admiration for putting out a clear, unifying message on a perenially divisive issue.

For a fascinating in-depth discussion around the differences between racism in the USA and in South Africa, listen to this moving, insightful and fun interview by marketing thought leader Joseph Jaffe of Hootsuite's Henk Campher - both South African by birth. They talk about this year's PepsiCo decision to remove the image of Aunt Jemima from its Quaker's Oats products, and the origins of the long-running 'Proudly South African' campaign as they discuss the need for healthy conflict and all-round considerations in bringing about true societal change.

"Apartheid was so ingrained, systemic. We needed to go through that bleeding as a nation, together." 

(Henk Campher, Vice President Corporate Marketing & Head of Social Impact at Hootsuite)  

The Courageous Conversation Global Foundation, established to eradicate racism through inter-racial dialogue, illustrated the tensions and tragedy that can arise from unconscious bias in this 'It's Not a Gun' 2020 US campaign.

Similarly, Britain's Create Not Hate organisation reminded us all to 'check our prejudices' with campaigns like 'Stitches' (below) and 'Heated Conversation'.

Men’s intimate shaving

Women are well catered for in the intimate shaving department but it's relatively new in the men's grooming and hygiene sector. As we often see, humour plays a key role when it comes to approaching men and their personal comfort zones: Veet paved the way with this 2019 ad where men bare their scars, and Lynx/Axe used a pair of coconuts and a softly spoken chap in his bathroom to get their delicate training across via ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, a relaxing, often sedative, sensation or brain tingle triggered by calming sights and sounds such as whispering and gentle brushing or scratching).

US company Manscaped pushed the taboo-tackling further along in 2020, deploying the requisite humour but with a far brasher tone as it promoted its personal trimmer with amusing situations involving the Grooming Guru, played by YouTuber 'Angry Joe' Vargas.

Women’s pain/pleasure

“There’s always something going on with a woman’s body,” a doctor once said, and oh my, ain’t that the truth.

This 2020 campaign ‘Womb Stories’ illustrates that with sometimes excruciating vividness. It’s not one for the squeamish, but that’s often the point of taboo-busting campaigns – they’re not easy to watch.

Swedish-based personal hygiene company Essity has made waves before with its taboo-busting ads such as Viva la Vulva and the acclaimed showing of red period blood instead of blue liquid in this Bodyform & Libresse #LiveFearless campaign. Now it brings us another bold creation called #wombstories (top image), which aims "to push back against the single, simplistic narrative girls are taught from a young age: start your period in adolescence, repeat with 'a bit' of pain, want a baby, get pregnant, have more periods, stop periods, fade into the menopausal background”.

Urging society to 'stop giving women's health the silent treatment', the three-minute piece is based on global research revealing that 54% of women would like to be able to talk more openly and without stigma about experiences such as miscarriage, endometriosis and menopause.

Over on the pure pleasure side of the spectrum, sex tech and sex toys for females are coming out of the closet in a big way, and the advertising around them is appropriately audacious

The products have sure moved beyond rubbery phallic-shaped tools – in fact, some of the creations by intimate lifestyle leaders like Evie and LELO (above) are so chic you might need to look twice to identify what they are. 

If it's just a spot of elegantly subversive style you're after, Prickle Scarves are made from prints created by layering and arranging sex toys until the devices themselves are no longer visible: in their place are floral arrangements and eye-catching patterns. 

Certain taboos have been, are, and will be with us for longer than others. The roots run deep. It’s also the case that new taboos are being created as societies constantly shift around us. 


Previous articles in this series: 

Taboo Topics 2020

Taboos 2019, Six Silence-Breakers

Taboos 2018, Six Silence-Breakers 

Posted by Tree Elven on 14/12/2020

Keywords: Taboos, Taboo Topics 2020, intimate shaving, sex tech, loneliness, erectile dysfunction, womb stories, racism, domestic violence, taboos in advertising 2020

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