Communication Currents

Communication Currents

New Study Examines How the First Birth Control Pills were Advertised in the 1960s

December 2, 2019
Health Communication

Histories of the birth control pill (“the pill”), such as Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, describe the pill as a scientific breakthrough that heralded a sexual revolution. Likewise, the MAKERS: Women Who Make America documentary series features an episode on the pill that emphasized the control that the pill gave women over their lives; epitomizing this, one person interviewed in MAKERS stated, “It [the pill] meant you could make your own decisions and not have to constantly be thinking about ‘is this going to change my life?’ It [the pill] separated sex from all those dangerous aspects.” This historical narrative of the pill is commonplace, but it is does not reflect the myriad connections between the pill and women’s struggle for liberation and agency. In a new article published in NCA’s Quarterly Journal of Speech, Heather Brook Adams examines 28 advertisements for the birth control pill, in the years 1960 to 1969 and complicates this historical narrative. These advertisements appeared in medical journals; it would not be until the early 1980s that pharmaceutical companies would market directly to users in popular magazines.

Adams identifies three motifs in the ads: “the reliant beneficiary, the discreet consumer, and the forgetful woman.” In these ads, men are “gatekeepers” of the pill. Instead of women being depicted as taking control over their own reproductive health, men are figured in positions of power over women and in control of their access to the pill. These ads show how the agency afforded by the pill was limited by a society that favored men’s authority as doctors and husbands. 

In “reliant beneficiary” ads, women are notably absent. Instead, the ads focus on the pill as a scientific breakthrough and imply that (male) doctors oversee women’s use of the pill. For example, one ad in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), depicts a piece of papyrus with “the first prescription for control of fertility.” Adams argues that the ad “persuades physicians to recognize their place in the history of medicine and, in turn, prescribe the pill to female patients.” Another advertisement contrasts the pink “Enovid-e” packaging with a mortar and pestle to demonstrate how far the science of birth control has developed. Enovid-e’s pink, calendar packaging is shown on a bedspread near pears and a flower. Adams argues that this configuration persuades readers to imagine that the product can be “inserted seamlessly into hyperfeminized routines and spaces.” Thus, in these ads, the pill is situated within a medical history that upholds a logic of gendered distinctions and that values ingenuity as masculine. 

In “discreet consumer” ads, the size of the pill and the ability of women to take the pill discreetly is emphasized. The ads emphasized that the pill was small and could be taken at home, unlike more complicated products. Adams argues that this concern also extended to the design of carrying cases for the pill, which were created to look like “a makeup container,” and that “this camouflage is not coincidental and it exceeds the utility of portability; a pill case that looks like a cosmetic compact could be modestly used by women since women were socially permitted – even expected – to carry beauty items outside of the home.” However functional this design, the emphasis on discreet packaging displayed in the ads suggests that pill users were expected to feel shame about their bodies and bodily functions. 

In “forgetful woman” ads, the packaging of the pill was also essential. The iconic pill packaging was designed by a product engineer who was concerned that his wife was not taking the pill correctly. In order to alleviate this concern, the engineer devised a dispenser that would dispense one pill per day, the typical dosage. While some product testing demonstrated that users did have trouble following the dosage instructions, pill users were not the charged with responsibility for taking the pill on time. Instead, the pill ads emphasized that the responsibility of taking the pill on time belonged to men – male doctors and husbands. One 1969 ad showed a woman’s face half in shadow and “slightly tilted down, directing her gaze upward toward the doctor (or other man?) looking over her.” Under the face, the ad states, “Now you can give her a ‘pill’ that really counts for her.” In contrast to the narratives of “liberated” women, this ad showed a user who was incompetent and unable to take the pill correctly without male intervention. 

Histories of the pill often emphasize that women were liberated by its production because they gained control over when or if to become a mother. However, advertisements from the period complicate this narrative of women’s agency. Some ads did not even feature women, focusing instead on the medical establishment. Others emphasized that women could be “discreet” in their use of the pill, which reinforced gendered norms about sexuality. When women were depicted as users of the pill, they were depicted as “worrisome, scatterbrained pill users.” These advertisements show a different history of the pill; one that is centered on the (male) medical establishment overseeing women’s bodies. 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Heather Brook Adams (2019) Goodbye, “post-pill paradise”: Texturing feminist public memories of women's reproductive and rhetorical agency, Quarterly Journal of Speech, DOI: 10.1080/00335630.2019.1657238

About the author (s)

Heather Brook Adams

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Assistant Professor of English


Heather Brook Adams