AMV BBDO’s Margaux Revol and Toby Allen on what made their “massive vulva party” such a force to be reckoned with
It’s now about 10 months since the LBB team crowded, mouths agape and eyebrows raised, around a computer screen watching a gang of various vulva-like objects singing their hearts out to the soulful Take Yo’ Praise by Camille Yarbrough. It was a moment that’s hard to forget. And at every major industry award show since ‘Viva La Vulva’ for Libresse by AMV BBDO has been celebrated, just like it itself celebrated women’s bodies. Most recently, the campaign cleaned up at Kinsale Sharks in Ireland, where it won the Grand Prix, a Gold in Film and went towards AMV BBDO’s Agency of the Year title.
Speaking at the same festival last week, the agency’s strategy director Margaux Revol and creative partner Toby Allen, dropped knowledge on just how an agency at the top of its game goes about changing everything for a whole marketing category, and changing society for the better in the process.
When tasked with launching a new intimate care product range for the Swedish-born brand, the team looked to see what problems they could address. The product range was made for vulvas, so they wondered what issues the vulva is facing in contemporary society. They found prudery to the left of them, porn to right. And both were causing problems.
Since ancient Greek times, depictions of women had censored the vulva, smoothing it over and denying its existence. 3,000 odd years later, NASA’s ‘Pioneer plaque’, sent to space in 1972 to depict the human bodies to any intelligent lifeforms out there, was doing precisely the same thing. The man was all there. Penis, check; testicles, check; vulva - “we have a problem” said Toby.
The result borne out of this is one of shame and ignorance, to the point where AMV BBDO discovered that 7/10 women didn’t even know what a vulva is.
Then there’s porn, often the only place people see a variety of people’s vulvas on display. Unfortunately it’s not a variety. Porn culture, Margaux highlighted, has perpetuated an image of a fantasy vulva referred to as “the coin slot” for decades - a hairless, neat, labia-less ideal that is a disaster for normal women and girls’ confidence.
One disheartening insight the agency found was that sexual health professionals are often encountering women and girls faking STI symptoms, just so they can get appointments just to check their vulvas are normal.
The agency spoke to gynaecologists and surgeons too, learning that labiaplasty - the removal of normal labia for cosmetic reasons - is the fastest growing cosmetic surgery in the world.
Another result of this culture of shame, they found, was that women are skipping smear tests out of embarrassment about showing their vulvas to a medical professional, risking their own health because of societal taboos.
Then they looked at what the rest of the intimate care category looked like and were confronted with a wall of belly buttons, no depictions of vulvas, cues around smelling bad. It was “shame-centric, misleading, undignified marketing,” said Margaux on stage.
“Both intimate care and period care had been categories that were focused on the product,” she notes to me after their talk. AMV BBDO were going to make it broader than that and simply talk about vulvas. “But then how do you do that? That’s when you realise what everyone had been stopping at.”
They realised why they were seeing so many belly buttons, because how are you going to depict a vulva in public communications in this climate full of shame. Maybe some felt a belly button was they closest they could find as a proxy. Margaux doesn’t agree. “No it’s not fucking good enough. Women are not allowed to have that part of their body. That’s why Barbie doesn’t have anything and why a lot of women don’t even know how to use the product.”
Toby attributes it to a broader issue which the whole industry needs to be wary of. “So much of marketing is creating a problem and then putting forward a solution to that problem,” he says. “And it’s psychological pollution. It’s pumping shit out into culture to make people feel worse about themselves just to sell more product. And it exists in so many other categories.”
Libresse’s brand purpose is to make products that mean women aren’t held back in their lives - so their comms should address the cultural issues and societal norms that are holding them back, explains Toby.
‘Live Fearless’ was the broad brand platform AMV BBDO and Libresse had been working with since their Red Fit in 2016. But unlike the stern, edgy tone of Red Fit and the award magnet that was Blood Normal, this campaign would be different. It would use joy to remedy a serious societal ill. As Toby put it on stage, they’d throw a “massive vulva party”.
Joy was central to the strategy. And once Somesuch director Kim Gehrig got her hands on the idea, she took the celebration up a notch. She was adamant that the vulvas in the hero film of the campaign would be expressing their joy through song, quite literally taking the lip sync video to a new level.
Even the rebellious agency team were taken aback by Kim’s treatment, worried it might be too much to see dozens of vulva-shaped things literally mouthing the words to a song, but when they found the song - Camille Yarbrough’s ode to womanhood - they got it. “It feels right that they [the vulva proxies] would be singing this duet to the woman and vice versa,” says Toby.
At one point on the shoot they even had air guns on the oysters to help them move them around authentically.
The key to the campaign’s tone would be inclusiveness - all different kinds of vulvas would be represented, not just the ‘coin slot’. And humour was vital. Penises have been allowed to be funny since ancient history, but vulvas have been denied all the comic roles. With Kim’s film, they smashed these targets.
“Both from a physical and psychological point of view women aren’t expected to be funny,” says Margaux. “Your body is expected to be desirable and sleek and neat. Taking the piss and showing that it’s not polite, it’s exuberant and flamboyant and bushy is another way of breaking those taboos.”
Another balance to readdress was comedy-based. When was the last time you saw a vulva on the wall of a public toilet? The ‘Bathroom Takeover’ remedied that.
Then there was the demystifying print campaign, origami books allowing people to make vulvas from paper, mirrors given to influencers to break down the taboo about checking your own vulva out, and the 'designer vagina' fashion bursary to encourage people to create vulva-themed garments and wear them with pride.
The agency and client were used to battling the broadcast authorities from the previous year’s Blood Normal campaign, where they were banned from showing period blood on televisions. After the success of that campaign AMV BBDO’s team thought they’d be willing to cooperate, but they pushed back nevertheless. One comment, the pair revealed in their Kinsale talk, was: “Your cupcakes are too erotic.” Broadcast figures said their approximations of vulvas were too graphic, too asymmetrical, too dark… one person even asked if the cupcakes had to have clitorises.
On stage in Kinsale Margaux noted that there are names for what they were asking for: labiaplasty, bleaching and female genital mutilation. ‘Do they need to sing?’, asked one client. “Oh! And now you’re asking us to silence them!?”says Margaux, incredulous.
She understands the psychology, if not the morals, of these questions: “When your boundaries are at work you’re not going to think it’s because it’s a taboo in your head. You’ll always make up reasons why it’s not OK. You post-rationalise because you’ve been taught to think vulvas are OK if they are neat and they look like that coin slot. Or you’ve been told that a female body needs to be quiet and polite. Why can’t it be exuberant?”
They persisted, of course. “You need an amazing account team on steroids to be the Erin Brockovich to fight all that,” said Margaux on stage. And they had their battle-hardened client partners Martina Poulopati and Tanja Grubner by their side. “It takes internal mavericks to sell it through,” says Toby, appreciative of their support.
Eventually they managed to overturn rejections and bans and get the film broadcast, first in Sweden and Denmark and then four months later in the UK. It eventually got seen in 90 countries, reaching nearly half a billion people.
As Toby and Margaux revealed in their talk, Viva La Vulva smashed all brand metrics, doubled differentiation in the category. Libresse went from zero to 40% market share in a new product range in a few weeks. Plus, they brought meaning to a backwards category.
Women responded well to this paradigm shift for the category. Nurses and gynecologists even wanted to use assets for reassurance - they saw so many women and girls that needed help feeling comfortable with their bodies and found that Viva La Vulva was the perfect solution.
AMV BBDO were thrilled that the imagery was even picked up and used in movements to reclaim womens’ bodies around the world. On International Women’s Day, the Spanish feminist movement redubbed the film to motivate women to come out and march for equal rights. One phrase mentioned in the film, which Toby felt sat particularly right, was “joyful rebellion” - that’s exactly the approach they’d taken.
Celebration built on sincerity
“You don’t have to be deadly serious to be taken seriously,” Toby says. The timing was perfect. The agency’s various campaigns for Libresse had coincided with “such a deluge of purpose driven work and so much of it was worthy and serious,” he says. Differentiation was easy for them. “We used to be the great entertainers. Then we got all serious thinking we can save the world. Wouldn’t it be a great challenge to try and do a bit of both?”
That’s AMV’s whole vibe at the moment. “I think Viva La Vulva, Trash Isles and Guinness Clear all have humour at the heart of them,” says Margaux. “You’re more legit to start a conversation with humour than assume people are already interested in you. If you’re presenting your brand with a funny, beautiful, cool creative solution you don’t have to spell things out.”