NEW YORK -- Celebrities are gabbing about it openly. A growing number of grooming products cater to it. And a recent TV commercial hails it as "the cradle of life" and "the center of civilization."
The vagina is becoming big business.
A generation that grew up with more graphic language and sexual images in the media is forgoing the decades-old practice of tiptoeing around female genitalia in favor of more open dialogue about it. To reach digital-age 20- and 30-somethings, who also have shortened attention spans, marketers are using ads that are edgier, more frank and sometimes downright shocking.
"Gen Y people are more relaxed about their bodies, so there's more attention to products that people would have been embarrassed to talk about before," says Deborah Mitchell, executive director for the Center for Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin School of Business. "It's part of this trend of women saying, `Hey, we're not embarrassed to talk about this."
The new freedom to talk about the vagina comes as marketers spend more to get women to buy products for the area. Ad spending for feminine hygiene products, including tampons, panty liners and cleansers, was up nearly 30 percent to $218.9 million in 2010 from two years ago, according to Kantar Media.
Pop culture also has a lot to do with Americans' – and companies' – increased comfort with women's nether regions. The term "vajayjay" became popular after media mogul Oprah Winfrey began using it on TV in 2007. Last month, actress Olivia Wilde, who stars on the Fox TV series "House," described her favorite vagina tattoo on TBS's "Conan."
"I am about to pass out," Conan said.
The openness has spawned an industry of products and services. "Vajazzling" – gluing on sparkly gems such as Swarovski crystals to jazz up a bikini wax – became a phenomenon last year when actress Jennifer Love Hewitt mentioned it on the former TBS talk show "Lopez Tonight." It's now a popular service offered by some salons across the country. For instance, the Brazil Bronze Glow Bar spa in New York, charges $25 for house designs like a butterfly, dragon and heart, and up to $100 for custom-made designs.
Bettybeauty Inc., which makes pubic hair dye, was started by Nancy Jarecki in 2006 and sells its products at salons and beauty stores. The $14.99 product works like normal hair dye but is formulated to be safe for the pubic area. The colors run from basics like black, brown and blonde to hot pink, turquoise and purple.
Jarecki said sales have tripled since the line was introduced, although she declined to give figures. Some women are looking to cover gray hair, while others just want a fun color, she says. "When I came out with it, there was this kind of burst of `Oh my god, you solved our problem. I didn't realize how much gray hair was down there,'" she said.
Big consumer products companies also are rolling out products for the vagina and using frank-talking ad campaigns to pitch them.
Energizer Inc. in 2009 introduced the Schick Quattro Trimstyle Razor, which has a bikini trimmer on one side. An ad for the product, which first aired in Europe and shows women dancing to a catchy song called "Mow the Lawn" as they trim hedges, became a viral hit online. A toned down U.S. version of the ad shows shrubs shrinking into various designs as women walk by them – an allusion to trimming the bikini line.
Kimberly-Clark makes fun of stereotypically touchy-feely feminine products ads in its campaign for a new line of pads and tampons introduced last year and put them in brightly colored packaging. In the TV commercial, a woman says, "I want to hold really soft things, like my cat" and "sometimes I just want to run on the beach, I like to twirl, maybe in slow motion." The commercial then closes with the line: "Why are tampon ads so ridiculous?"
In July, the company introduced a designer series that includes pads with flowers, polka dots and stripes printed on them and a limited edition pad and tampon carrying case designed by "Sex and the City" TV series stylist Patricia Field. An accompanying online campaign called "BantheBland.com," allows users to design their own pads using bright colors and patterns; winning patterns will be manufactured and sold for a limited time.
"There's a lot of pressure these days for ads to go viral," said Brian Steinberg, TV editor at trade publication Advertising Age. "If you want a viral pickup you have to be a little eyebrow raising."
Some companies have stumbled over the line between provocative and offensive. In July, Fleet Laboratories, which makes the Summer's Eve feminine products, has had mixed success with its "Hail to the V" campaign to market its cleansing products.
One 60-second TV ad touts the "power of the `V.'" It shows men throughout history battling each other while a voiceover says, "Over the ages and throughout the world, men have fought for it" and "it's the center of civilization." The ad then cuts to a modern day woman standing next to a shopping aisle of Summer's Eve products and the voiceover says, "So ladies, show it a little love."
But another series of ads, which showed people of different races' hands as puppets appearing to talk as though they were a vagina, was deemed racially insensitive and pulled from the air. The company apologized.
Rhonda Zahnen, a principal at The Richards Group, which created the ads, said despite the controversy, the company was pleased with the overall reaction to the campaign. She noted that about 25,000 have correctly completed its Summer's Eve's online "ID the V" body awareness quiz. And Stephen Colbert even did a parody of the talking-hands ads on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."
"We're really excited about having that kind of publicity and coverage. A month ago nobody was talking about feminine hygiene," says Zahnen, who added that Summer's Eve learned through research that women were ready to have frank discussions about their bodies. "We just wanted to be sure that the conversation is focused on celebrating and empowering women."