It’s a scene that has played out in any number of movies and television shows, and a fair share of real-life drugstores and markets. A customer attempts to unobtrusively purchase a potentially embarrassing item — condoms perhaps, or adult diapers — but, through technical or human error, is outed, with the taboo product put on display for all to see.

Through canny marketing, cars can be made to seem either sexier or more practical, and food can move from virtuous to fun and back. Some products, though, are inescapably embarrassing or disgusting, creating special challenges to marketers. In the past, key techniques for luring consumers of products like digestive aids, condoms and lice treatments have included humor and couching afflictions in creative euphemisms. But today, marketers are adapting to the changing cultural landscape by developing new strategies for making embarrassing problems ­– and the act of buying their elixirs — seem less so.

“It’s a whole new world because of all the opportunities for communicating,” says Wharton marketing professor Jerry (Yoram) Wind, academic director of the school’s Future of Advertising Program. “It doesn’t need to be the TV commercial; it can be a funny video.” One of the most effective ways to advertise these days is to put consumers in charge — for example, a global competition for user-generated content, similar to what Doritos has done for its Super Bowl spots, Wind notes.

“Another way of engaging people is on social media,” he adds. “There are tons of opportunities to create content and communicate about products that are somewhat embarrassing and improve the user’s quality of life while achieving the advertiser’s objectives.”

New technologies have also eased the path to purchase. “It’s everyone’s nightmare to have a clerk announce to the whole store that they need a price check on adult diapers for the guy in line three,” says Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger. “It’s much easier, and less embarrassing, to order online. Online has also made it easier to collect information and commiserate with other people that have the same issues — all anonymously, which reduces embarrassment.”

“It’s a whole new world because of all the opportunities for communicating.” –Jerry (Yoram) Wind

But beyond the easier access to products, something in the culture has changed the kind of positioning that can go around embarrassing products — and these messages are succeeding. “Marketers are realizing that it’s sometimes better to address issues head on than dancing around them,” says Berger. “Taboos have lessened and taking a humorous perspective on an issue can often increase discussion and sales.”

The Un-diaper

The number of distinct markets for consumers of various potentially embarrassing products is vast and growing. Condom sales, fueled by concern over infectious diseases, are expected to rise to $5.4 billion by 2018. Lice infests between six and 12 million U.S. children per year. Bed bugs, after nearly dropping from public consciousness in the middle of the 20th century, are now experiencing an “alarming resurgence,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Between 25% and 45% of U.S. women suffer from urinary incontinence, as defined as at least one leakage in the previous year. The problem increases with age, which means that aging U.S. baby boomers constitute a rich and growing market for makers of adult diapers — $1.4 billion in 2013. With global sales of adult diapers currently $7 billion per year and forecast to grow at more than 8% annually, Procter & Gamble announced in July that it would re-enter that market after an absence of more than a decade.

Boomers are aging and living longer and yet see themselves as forever young, so it’s no accident that one major campaign took a multifaceted approach that speaks to many of their interests. A commercial for Depend that started running in August opens with a bearded, plaid-shirted hipster walking down the street, catching the eyes of young women. But it’s not his good looks turning heads. As the camera pulls wider, you see he is fully dressed except for his pants, and is leading an entourage of similarly bottomless young adults baring their underwear. “It’s time to bring it out in the open,” intones the narrator. “It’s time to drop your pants for ‘Underwearness,’ a cause to support the over 65 million people who may need to wear Depend underwear.”

In other words, it’s not a sales pitch, but rather a plea to help some very attractive younger people who are out and proud about the need to use something that, it turns out, looks more like underwear than diaper. In fact, the out and proud aspect has a lot in common with the gay and lesbian rights movement, says the creator of the campaign. “There’s a lot of shame and stigma [attached] to heavy bladder leakage, and basically it’s synonymous with adult diapers — there is no way of getting around that,” says Calle Sjoenell, chief creative officer for Ogilvy & Mather. “When we took a look at what the new version of Depend was, they actually looked very similar to regular underwear, and usually one of the best ways to make anything that has a taboo no longer have a taboo is let it out in the open for everyone to see. The pride movement for example … has done a great job of normalizing LGBT, and that’s what we wanted to do, plain and simple.”

The commercial itself, though, was just the start of remaking the image of a condition and the tool for dealing with it. To raise awareness of what the brand calls a “social movement and a charitable cause,” a kick-off dance party was held at Pier 97 in New York. Customers are directed through social media to a website that offers free samples and coupons, and the company rewards users sharing photos and videos with a pledge that Depend maker Kimberly-Clark will donate $1 for each Tweet or Instagram post (up to $3 million) to the United Way and a foundation advancing public awareness of bladder problems.

It’s the existence of social media, Sjoenell notes, that has really allowed the campaign to alleviate the embarrassment factor by showing people safety in numbers. “Humans are inherently social creatures, and the need to see and be seen has always been there,” he says. “But now there is a very democratic tool, and 20 years ago, before Facebook and Twitter, it’s would have been hard to have this scale of a campaign. There was no way for people to participate, which we have now.”

“It’s everyone’s nightmare to have a clerk announce to the whole store that they need a price check on adult diapers for the guy in line three.” — Jonah Berger

Wind says the Depend campaign happens to hit on a number of critical characteristics of effective advertising — his “RAVES” model. It is “relevant, in that it speaks to an increasing problem. It is “actionable” — it gives customers a website to deepen engagement. It brings “value” through its coupons and free samples and further projects the values of social good through its donation program. The “exciting and experiential” comes through the relief viewers may feel in knowing there are many others like them. And it “surprises” people with the fresh message that incontinence afflicts a younger population than you might think.

Of particular value, Wind adds, is the credibility the company can gain by acting as a clearinghouse for customers to share anecdotal experiences. “In general, consumers don’t trust companies,” he says. “But customers do trust other customers.”

Sjoenell sees the “Underwearness” campaign as a possible template for making over, in a more humanistic image, other conditions and illnesses that still carry a stigma — mental illness, depression and Attention Deficit Disorder among them. “Through the help of modern mass communications, especially interactive ones, we have a bigger understanding of ourselves as humans, basically, and the diversity that comes with it,” he notes. “On the web, everyone can share.”

Sex and the Single Purchase

If the typical purchaser of laxatives or prophylactics believes he or she can mitigate embarrassment by filling out the shopping cart with cough drops, tissues or other distraction items, some research suggests the coping mechanism can backfire. In Balancing the Basket: The Role of Shopping Basket Composition in Embarrassment, published last year in the Journal of Consumer Research, authors Sean Blair and Neal J. Roese show that the type of products that get put in the shopping basket alongside embarrassing items like condoms or lubricants matters more than the number of “distractions.”

“Even mild embarrassment can cause consumers to alter their behavior in an effort to avoid the sting of unflattering evaluations,” the study notes. If an additional product counterbalances the undesired identity the customer is trying not to project, embarrassment is attenuated. “We theorize this occurs because purchase embarrassment is a function of the extent to which the shopping basket as a whole, rather than its constituent products, communicates an undesired identity,” the authors write.

Embarrassment is a factor that weaves its way through the shopping experience in surprising ways. For one thing, it plays a role in customers deciding to not use coupons, according to Consumer Issues in Coupon Usage: An Exploratory Analysis (1996), by Joseph Bonnici, David P. Campbell, William B. Fredenberger and Kathryn H. Hunnicutt and published in the Journal of Applied Business Research.”It’s like begging for a quarter or two at the cash register with a scaled-down food stamp,” one focus group participant told researchers.

“Some people are deathly afraid of it. There are people who don’t like that Facebook knows everything you buy.” –Barbara Kahn

And embarrassment can be powerful whether real or imagined, according to Embarrassment in Consumer Purchase: The Roles of Social Presence and Purchase Familiarity (2001), by Rajesh V. Manchanda, Darren W. Dahl and Jennifer Argo and published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The more familiar a consumer is with an embarrassing product, the less likely he or she will be embarrassed while making a purchase. Further, when a consumer has a pre-existing familiarity with the purchase, the influence of any real social encounter was reduced. “Communication via advertising, promotions, and packaging should be creatively used to increase familiarity and normalize the purchase process for embarrassing products,” write the authors.

In fact, marketers have long sought to smooth the path to purchase for potentially embarrassed consumers. One technique is rethinking the packaging. “If you have a feminine hygiene product and you can change the packaging to make it look very design-y and sophisticated, that helps that it doesn’t look like some medical weird thing in your check-out basket,” says Wharton marketing professor Barbara E. Kahn.

One of the more recent success stories in dissolving embarrassment pursued a more altruistic goal than merely increasing sales. After Katie Couric’s husband died of colon cancer, the news anchor took up the cause of regular colonoscopies. She even underwent an on-air colonoscopy, and her efforts were linked to an uptick in colonoscopy use for about nine months after the start of her campaign. “In that case it was a little bit of fear,” says Kahn of what Couric’s campaign eased, “but part of what was going on was making it not an embarrassing thing. Celebrities can help erase stigmas, and I think she did a great job of that.”

The Long Digital Trail

Kahn, who is also director of Wharton’s Baker Retailing Center, points out that long before Couric there was Betty Ford. “Now rehab is almost fashionable, but at the time, it wasn’t.” Ford went into rehab in 1978 for an addiction to alcohol and pills. “Making it into something where people know you’re not alone is a very effective technique.”

And of course, groups of common interests had but a slim chance for finding each other before nearly the whole world hopped online. Now, there is an uninhibited ability to find kinship around embarrassing conditions through e-commerce channels like Facebook and eBay that allow sellers to work through drop-shipping to gather up products for certain kinds of buyers. “With social networks, if you are considering buying something, you can probably find a group that has the same problem,” says Wind. “You may find thousands of people struggling with this.”

Some sites, like, offer products that give new purpose to the word unmentionables, while prominently trumpeting policies regarding “privacy, security and discretion” in their sales pitch. The company’s mascot, Mister Private, pledges to “defend you in the face of nosy neighbors, chatty mailmen and leering customers at your local drugstore.” He also provides online answers to embarrassing problems and offers advice.

All of these new electronic avenues may ease the embarrassment for some, but ironically, they may leave others looking nervously over their shoulder. “You are creating a history now, and people know your privacy is non-existent, so there is a data list of what you’ve ordered,” says Kahn. “Some people are deathly afraid of it.

There are people who don’t like that Facebook knows everything you buy.”

For those who fear leaving behind digital fingerprints, there is one technique that still works rather well: donning a pair of dark sunglasses, driving to the local drug store, and silently sliding your cash across the counter. And then hoping the clerk doesn’t call out for a price check.