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The Awkward Science of Designing Packaging For Embarrassing Products

It’s someone’s job to make sure you can put that hemorrhoid cream in your basket without dying inside

If you’ve ever stood in a long line at the supermarket with a box of hemorrhoid cream, penile ointment or maybe a morning-after pill, you’ve probably experienced the blistering embarrassment that comes with placing the bodily itch creme du jour on the checkout counter. Your face, says it all: Sorry, this isn’t mine, I promise! But your eyes say: Okay, yes, this is for me, dear God, please don’t let my credit card get declined.

Obviously, you could save yourself the embarrassment and buy your personal lubricants online. But sometimes an alarming, warty growth doesn’t want to wait for two-day shipping, which means buying taint ointment in person — which, of course, means embarrassment.

But it doesn’t have to, according to a recent set of studies from Mississippi State University professors Carol Esmark Jones and Adam Farmer, along with doctoral student Christian Barney. “I’ve been researching privacy while shopping for years now and embarrassment always came up as a factor,” explains Jones. “I love doing research on privacy and embarrassment — this was my dissertation topic and I’ve just kept finding new things to examine regarding it all.”

As reported by Science Daily, one of the studies conducted by Jones and her team saw participants navigating a virtual drugstore looking for hemorrhoid cream:

“The video then stopped before a shelf with two differently packaged creams, a blue box and a red tube, and the participant was asked to choose one. They selected the blue box over the red tube by a factor of 2 to 1.”

“One of the more interesting things is, we had people saying that our research wasn’t practical because products aren’t packaged in a red tube,” says Jones. “But if you walk down your pharmacy aisle, you’ll see all sorts of products packaged in a red tube (including personal lubricant, which is a product we specifically tested). So it’s interesting to me that some people don’t buy red-tubed products to the point that they might as well not exist.”

According to Jones, the main recommendation she would make to the designers of tubes and boxes for embarrassing products — based on her research — is for the packaging to have a cool — i.e., not bold — color theme. “Cool is blue, purple and green,” she says. “This way it doesn’t stand out as much.”

Another, more discrete method for buying and selling embarrassing products Jones recommends, is through the use of vending machines. “Many retailers lock up (or put behind the counter) certain highly stolen products like condoms and pregnancy tests,” Jones tells us. “One reason these products are highly stolen is because people (generally youths) are embarrassed to buy them. However, if some of these products were in an in-store vending machine, shoppers could purchase the products with a little more privacy and the retailer would have reduced theft.”

Surprisingly, condoms, hemorrhoid ointments and other typical “I promise this isn’t for me” products weren’t the only things people were embarrassed to buy. “One product that’s been listed by men that always cracks me up is toilet paper,” says Jones. “I kept getting guys who were embarrassed to buy toilet paper so I finally asked some students about this and the answer was that males only use toilet paper for one thing, so they get self-conscious about buying it.”

Which is even more strange when you consider the other, potentially even more embarrassing thing men use toilet paper for.

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Inspired by her study on privacy, Jones is next going to examine the way people feel about shopping in the plus-sized section of a store. “That definitely has a gender component: Men don’t care, but women consistently have a different section for plus size and it bothers a good majority of them.”

This is why Jones thinks that, beyond the color of the packaging, factors like gender and age also impact why someone might be embarrassed to buy a particular product. “I haven’t statistically examined them very deeply but previous research, my own conversations and data shows they’re definitely factors to be considered,” she adds.

Unfortunately, hemorrhoid cream is still hemorrhoid cream, and even if it comes in a sleek metallic tube with a lightning bolt embossed on it, the person waiting in line behind you will still be able to see the letters that read: Preparation H.

Some things, there’s no getting away from.