Douching is in decline. Back in 1985, according to the National Survey of Family Growth, 37 percent of American women aged 15-44 regularly douched. By 1995, that number had fallen to 27 percent. And in a 2006 study of women 18-44, it was less than 12 percent.
If you’re the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, this is terrific news. Most doctors recommend that women don’t douche. Douching can upset the natural balance of bacteria in the vagina and it is associated with various reproductive health problems.
If, however, you are the C.B. Fleet Company—the 142-year-old manufacturer of the category-leading Summer’s Eve brand of douches—this is flat-out terrible news. Younger women basically don’t douche at all and have been advised by trusted authority figures never to start. What can Summer’s Eve do, saddled with a flagship product that’s fallen permanently out of favor?
For the answer, flip on your dial-up modem, plug it into your phone jack, and endure those shrieky-beepy noises as it sloooowly connects to the Internet. Wait, what’s that you say? Nobody uses dial-up anymore? Tell that to AOL, which just reported $192 million in Q3 revenue from its dial-up services. AOL still has tons of subscribers. It’s just that their numbers are dwindling—to the tune of a 22 percent year-on-year decline. Dial-up is drowning, but it’s not quite dead. And faced with a lucrative core product that is steadily sliding under the waves, AOL has been attempting a daring switcheroo: It’s taking the cash from those dial-up subscriptions and plowing it into a grand effort to become a content company—which explains its $315 million purchase of the Huffington Post, its $30 million acquisition of TechCrunch, and its substantial investments in the Patch network of local news sites.
Douching, I would argue, is a lot like dial-up. Uncool. On the wane. Never coming back, and with good reason. Yet, for the moment, still profitable.
Plenty of women continue to douche. Particularly older generations and minority women—that 2006 study found that 27 percent of African-American women and 15 percent of Hispanic women regularly douche, as compared to only 9 percent of white women. But Summer’s Eve can see the writing on the vaginal wall.
And so, in what is proving to be a fairly canny maneuver, Summer’s Eve has shifted its focus to what Bryant terms “external cleansing and freshening products.” These washes, wipes, and sprays have been around since back in the 1980s, but for most of their existence had comprised only 30 percent of Summer’s Eve’s revenue while the other 70 percent came from traditional douching products. (A quick primer: Douching means using a bulb and tube to spray some sort of liquid solution directly onto the interior of the vagina. Historically, motivations for this act have included concerns about cleanliness and odor as well as a misguided conviction that douching after sex will prevent pregnancy.)
Feminine hygiene has long been a pop-culture punch line, and Summer’s Eve has attracted its fair share of ridicule. On occasion it’s been earned: Over the summer, a series of Summer’s Eve web ads featuring stereotypically African-American and Latina voice-overs were met with a wild outcry and accusations of racial insensitivity. Which was fair—the Latina ad actually used the phrase “Ai-yi-yi!” These spots were meant to be provocative for their use of talking hand puppets representing vaginas, and for their employment of the phrase “vertical smile,” but the ethnically over-the-top voicings got all the attention. Even Stephen Colbert got in on the fun.
At other times, though, the barbs seem sort of superfluous and bullying. These new external products are harmless—mild, soap-free, properly pH-balanced, and approved by gynecologists. But that didn’t stop Sarah Silverman from taking a swipe at them on Conan: “Women of America, I promise you, you do not need vaginal deodorant. You need a doctor. If you use simple soap and water and you get out the shower and there’s still a rancid-ish odor, don’t spray perfume on it! That’s crazy! That would be crazy!”
Maybe it is crazy. But lost amid the jokes and admonitions is the fact that, despite working within a category that has a bull’s-eye affixed to its back, Summer’s Eve is pulling off a very clever marketing revamp. (Much more likely to be successful than AOL’s, I’d venture.) Sales of external products have seen double-digit growth most years, causing the old ratio to flip: Lately, external products have garnered 60 percent of sales while douches comprise only 40 percent. And that trend is likely to continue. Bryant says all of Summer’s Eve’s future growth will come from the external offerings.
Summer’s Eve has been ruthless in abandoning its old ways, barely even marketing its douches anymore. It’s a shrewd sacrifice, made in the interest of carefully tending the brand’s new image. Sure, Summer’s Eve will do some in-store douche promotions and price discounts. They’ll occasionally refresh the douche line “with more relevant and modern fragrances,” according to Bryant. (A recent visit to a convenience store revealed an “Island Splash”-flavored douche on the shelves.) But douches make zero appearances on the Summer’s Eve web site. And they certainly don’t get featured in TV commercials.
Meanwhile, the national ad campaign for the external products has been more successful than those controversial spots would indicate. “Hail to the V” debuted on TV screens in July, airing in various youth- and female-friendly contexts—Bravo, E!, MTV, The Real Housewives shows, 90210. The ad shows us epic scenes of ancient womanhood, accompanied by a cheeky voiceover about the vagina’s socio-biological role in world history: “It’s the cradle of life, it’s the center of civilization. Over the ages and throughout the world, men have fought for it, battled for it, died for it. One might say it’s the most powerful thing on earth. So come on ladies, show it a little love. Cleansing wash and cloths from Summer’s Eve.”
The ad deftly repositions the brand. Emotionally, Summer’s Eve’s message had been too shame-based—or, as Bryant more delicately puts it, “too problem-solution oriented.” (It was a tone that prevailed across the category: Competitor Massengill memorably and queasily promised to remedy that “not so fresh” feeling.) These days, when the word “vagina” is a frequent, joyful sit-com punch line, it’s no longer a winning sales technique to imply that possessing a vagina is problematic. So Summer’s Eve has shifted to emphasize a casual, everyday cleaning regimen. It’s also ramped up the attitude. “We needed to be more edgy and blunt,” says Bryant, “if we were going to talk to younger women.”
As for Sarah Silverman’s argument that these external products are unnecessary? Bryant counters that there’s no reason not to use these washes and wipes. “Women will have four different facial moisturizers, three different body moisturizers, a lotion for their hands, a lotion for their feet, anti-wrinkle cream, anti-wrinkle serum, night cream, day cream… A woman uses all these specialized products for every part of her body, but for the one part of her body that is the most sensitive, she doesn’t.” And it’s not like men don’t have their own pubic concerns. Colbert jokes about “Autumnal Afternoon Pine-Fresh Dick Scrub” as though it’s an absurd concept, but there are Axe ads that literally urge men: “Clean your balls.”
In the end, so long as they aren’t medically inadvisable, one’s hygiene choices are one’s own business. I’d never presume to tell women what to wash or how to wash it. I’d feel like a douche.