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Most Embarrassing Products: Vagisil


The name alone makes a shopper cringe.

Feminine hygiene products are one of those topics most people try to avoid. In stores, the products are sold in an aisle far from the register and prying eyes.The packages are designed with a pastel color palette, and sales slogans make use of indirect Zen-like aphorisms. There's no escaping the subject matter, however, when shopping for one of the anti-yeast infection products sold by Vagisil. In this case, it's all in the name.

Johnson and Johnson (JNJ), the company behind Vagisils' rival product, took a different approach with Monistat, a name that's a lot less direct and vaguely scientific.

Either way, customers buying these personal products invariably display some degree of embarrassment in the check-out line, say clerks at a Rite-Aid (RAD) drugstore in lower Manhattan. While waiting with other customers, a woman buying an anti-fungal creme will often try to shield the product from view, holding it off to the side. At the register, she will hand it off to the cashier quickly, avoid eye-contact, and close the deal by asking for a brown paper bag.

Try as they might, most people just don't want to talk about the subject, even those whose livelihood depends on it. A spokesman from Combe Inc., the company that owns Vagisil, declined Minyanville's recent request for an interview, stating that the privately held company is "very conservative."

Indeed, as a New York Times headline once put it, Combe is "A Company That's Found its Niches." Based in White Plains, New York, the family-run corporation was founded in 1949 by Ivan Combe, also known as the inventor of Clearasil and Odor-Eaters.These days Combe also makes the health and beauty products Scalpacin, LiceMD, and Just for Men. Less-than-flattering titles, to be sure.

Combe's anti-fungal product was introduced in 1974, and finding an advertising channel wasn't easy. "Networks blushed at the prospect of running commercials for Vagisil; its first televised spot wasn't shown until 1983," according to the Times.

In the early 2000s, Combe began taking advantage of the World Wide Web as "a relatively unlimited (compared with a 15- or 30-second television commercial) platform from which to explain its products," says the Times. "While women may linger in the aisle to weigh a decision between Dove and Ivory soap, it's less likely they will do the same when deciding between Vagisil and a similar product made by Summer's Eve."

''We believe that consumers go to the Web to seek deeper understanding of products,'' said Combe's senior vice president of marketing and sales at the time. ''With women, clearly this decision is very intimate. The ability to learn in the privacy of their own home is very important.''

Ten years later, the web remains key to Vagisil's marketing. The company's interactive site invites women to check a list of symptoms that will help diagnose their specific needs. Likewise, the Monistat site features more than 100 frequently asked questions answered by a team of nurse practitioners. On the Internet, at least, women have found that feminine health issues need not be relegated to a dark and dusty corner.

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