For Trojan, Inventive Packaging Made the Sale When Advertising Wasn’t Allowed

The year 2016 saw a lot of talk about the state of American manufacturing—about jobs making stuff for great American brands. And while most of the discussion centered on products like General Electric lightbulbs and Carrier air conditioners, it’s worth pointing out one brand that’s received very little press—even though all of its manufacturing takes place in the U.S. (in Colonial Heights, Va.); even though untold numbers of the 500 million products it turns out yearly are used every day of the week.

Well, maybe more like every night of the week. The product? Trojan condoms.

Condoms are big business in the land of the free. According to Zion Research, Americans are forecast to spend nearly $1.6 billion on them by 2020. And the vast majority of the market share—over 72 percent by one estimate—belongs to Trojan.

In the '70s, tricolor boxes touted transparency.

Trojan, the brand started by the Youngs Rubber Company, turned 100 years old in 2016. That makes the year’s end a good time to look back at the brand that not only dominates its segment, but—forgive us—turned America on to condoms in the first place. (Check out the complete photo gallery below.) Much like Kleenex and ChapStick, Trojans have become synonymous with their category. And, as corporate hastens to point out, since introducing its signature product in 1916, Trojan has been “America’s No. 1 condom brand.”

But getting there hasn’t been simple. These days, nobody flinches at the kind of straightforward advertising Trojan did this past summer—those humorous spots starring Lil Dicky, or the Snapchat ad showing two spring-breaking millennials getting their “party on.” Marketing like 2010’s “Live Large” contest, which crowdsourced songs with lyrics about Magnum extra-large condoms, has reportedly made Trojan the top-dog brand among African American men.

But for the first five decades of the company’s existence, there was no consumer marketing to speak of. Before the sexual revolution loosened things up in the early 1970s, if a fella wanted to buy condoms, his sole option was to ask the local druggist for them—and they were all behind the counter.

And according to the brand’s vp of marketing, Bruce Weiss, that meant Trojan’s packaging was also Trojan’s marketing.

Cross-promoting lubricants, circa 1945

"In the earliest days," Weiss said, "the packaging was created to be discreet and communicate the safety and efficacy of the product while also touting the company’s unique manufacturing process."

It was the packaging that contained little brochures that talked about Trojan’s rigorous, machine-based testing. It was the packaging that boasted of the sort of performance a buyer hopes to get from a condom (“As Thin as a Shadow. As Strong as an Ox!”) And, most important, it was the packaging that displayed Trojan’s signature Roman centurion helmet, a memorable brand logo that was also an enduring metaphor of protection, and also conquest.

"The helmet was the element that said that men would be buying these," said Jerry Jankowski, who teaches at the Otis College of Art and Design and runs his own firm, Jankowski Design. "The aggressive aspect, the [suggestion of] conquering, works very well. The Trojans were known for their aggressiveness, that they were going to fight and win."

Indeed, as the photos here show, the evolution of Trojan’s packaging tells the story of condoms themselves and how Americans were persuaded to use them, taught to trust them, and eventually ask for them by name.

1

The Helmet on the Red Box

Trojan founder Merle Leland Youngs chose a Roman centurion’s helmet as his brand logo. The helmet figured big on this 12-count box sold in the years before World War II, and it remains on the packaging to this day. "The Trojan helmet was chosen because the symbol represents protection, reliability and strength," Weiss said.

2

Please Don’t Call Them Rubbers

Prior to the appearance of latex in the 1930s, condoms were made out of rubber—and were still referred to as "rubbers" by many people. But Trojan used the medical term "prophylactics." It pretty much had to, since the Comstock Law forbade the sale of birth control. As this box and handy 3-count tin (sold between 1935 and 1945) demonstrate, Trojan favored simple packaging. "Consumers wanted to minimize the amount of time they spent at the counter due to a lack of comfort in making a condom purchase," Weiss said. "The packaging was designed so that it could be easily identified, as many consumers shopped based on the color."

3

You Can Never Be Too Thin

After World War II, Trojans introduced this 3-count "matchbook" box. Like the tins of the prewar period, the matchbook was convenient, but the real advance here was the Thins name. Men have always expected conflicting performance features from condoms: strong enough not to break but thin enough to retain feeling. Thins delivered on the latter promise without actually saying anything about the pleasure of sex. After all, as the package says, condoms were "sold only for the protection of health."

4

Touting the Testing Machine

Trojan differentiated itself from competitors by telling customers—usually via folded package inserts like the one here from 1955—that its condoms were machine tested. The need for quality assurance, which continues to this day, began in the dark days of the early 1900s, when condoms were sold in bars, by street peddlers, or even handbag merchants. By distributing its condoms exclusively through pharmacies and emphasizing its rigorous testing procedures, Trojan gradually won the trust of the condom-buying public.

5

The Actual Testing Machine

The packaging contained only a rendering of the testing machine, but here’s what the "water test circuit" machine actually looked like. Trojan still conducts similar (though obviously more advanced) testing today. To quote its website: "Each condom travels on a stainless steel mold into a water solution charged with an electric current. If current passes through the condom to the mold, there’s a hole in the condom and it’s off to the ‘reject’ bin."

6

The Beginning of the “Enz”

Trojan’s innovations included Enz, a trademarked term it coined for the reservoir tip. Describing the usefulness of such a feature would have been awfully dicey, but corporate let the thing speak for itself. The packaging—including these 3-count oblongs from the 1950s—said merely "for those who wish a special end as a receptacle." And what is an "enz," exactly? It’s simply a trademarkable plural of the word "end."

7

Thank the Sexual Revolution

Trojan made its foray into advertising in 1927—but only in trade journals targeted at pharmacists. Direct-to-consumer advertising would have to wait until the sexual revolution relaxed the public's resistance to messages about birth control. Even then, ads like this one ran in Playboy, where the readership was obviously a bit more open to such themes than the readers of Ladies' Home Journal.

8

A Superhero for Frightening Times

The onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s gave the public yet another reason to use condoms and, logically enough, gave Trojan a topic that had to be confronted with its branding. Opting to keep its message away from the utterly terrifying, Trojan introduced Mr. Safe Sex, who not only delivered his information with "candor and humor," be re-emphasized Trojan’s branding at the same time. (He was, after all, a Roman centurion.) This 1996 announcement appeared in the pages of Adweek.

9

Pleasure is Finally OK to Talk About

In the years since Church & Dwight’s 2001 acquisition, Trojan has retained the helmet logo on its boxes, but the color variety and messaging indicate a significant shift in the way condoms get marketed today. "The narrative has changed," Jankowski said. "Today’s condom packaging tells a story of pleasure." Indeed, it's impossible to imagine terms like "Ultra Ribbed" or invitations to "Get Closer!" adorning Trojan boxes of the 1950s. But, as Weiss notes, it's only the technology and terminology that's new: "The benefits that consumers are looking for, products that provide protection and enhance pleasure, have not changed," he said.