Risky Business

Five college freshmen rent a beach house and make a pact to finish a jar of condoms by summer’s end. American Pie 2, which opened last weekend, is as single-minded about sex as the teens it portrays. It’s a condom marketer’s dream.

But for Carol Carrozza, vice president of marketing at Ansell Healthcare, the maker of LifeStyles condoms, the sequel to the 1999 hit has instead been a missed opportunity to bring condom advertising out of the shadows of late-night programming. As part of the company’s promotional deal with the makers of the film, the brand is shown prominently in the movie, and Universal Pictures was to air ads cross-promoting the sequel with LifeStyles. But the Motion Picture Association of America objected, saying that its policy on movie advertising—to which all studios adhere—prohibits condoms from being shown. The spots were scrapped.

Twenty years into the AIDS epidemic and ten years after Fox aired the first condom ad on network TV, getting prophylactic ads in front of a mainstream audience is still one of the primary challenges facing marketers such as Ansell.

ABC, The WB and UPN refuse paid condom ads. CBS and NBC accept the ads but will air them only after 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., respectively. While overall acceptance is up, Carrozza says, placing the spots is often an expensive and arduous process. She often circumvents network headquarters and instead solicits individual owner affiliates. “It’s not the way we like to go,” she says, but making market-by-market headway will, over time, show that “people want to hear these messages.”

Indeed, adults favor condom ads on TV by a margin of nearly 3 to 1, according to studies conducted by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based health organization. A survey of 1,142 adults concluded that broadcasting condom commercials would not change how viewers feel about networks, particular shows or even other advertisers.

“We’re at a weird transition point right now,” says Vicky Rideout, who instituted the study and serves as vp of entertainment media and public-health programs at the foundation. “So much about the media is about pushing the envelope and being as daring as possible, but when it comes to condom advertising, there is incredible hesitation and timidity.”

Condom makers themselves are getting bolder, in TV, print and radio ads. As consumers tired of seeing safe-sex-themed messages, advertising shifted away from scare tactics—such as the image of a skeleton talking about reasons he didn’t use condoms—and are now emphasizing pleasure over protection.

A recent spot for Trojan, created by Bates Worldwide, New York, opens on a tight shot of two women in a cafe. “I didn’t sleep a wink,” says one. “I guess everyone is enjoying new Extended Pleasure condoms from Trojan,” says Trojan Man, the tongue-in-cheek character on horseback that has been the brand’s heard-but-not-seen spokes-hero for the last eight years. “Stop by Randall’s place,” the envious friend urges Trojan Man. “Been there,” he replies. She dashes out.

A LifeStyles commercial by SSC&W, Montville, N.J., shows a researcher with ample cleavage tell ing a gorilla he can spend the weekend with his female pal, but only if he chooses the right condom. The re searcher describes the rigorous tests LifeStyles condoms are put through, including a stretch test illustrated by the female gorilla, who launches a banana with a condom slingshot. The slapstick ends with the primates enjoying a candlelight dinner and the tag “Hook up. Go wild. Don’t worry!”

“Have the sex you tell your friends you have” is the daring tag on a print campaign for Durex by Fitzgerald + Co., Atlanta. One execution shows a trophy topped with a gold depiction of a couple locked in an amorous pose. Another shows a close-up shot of a bedside table: Portraits on the nightstand show people wide-eyed and presumably impressed.

“If we were talking condoms three years ago, it would have been about safety,” says Derek Ogilvie, copywriter at Fitzgerald + Co. “[The current approach] opens the door to say more about your condom in particular.”

“Since safety was already the price of entry, the foundation, we wanted to find another avenue,” adds account supervisor Tom Sobotta. “We wanted to show that with responsible sex, you can set yourself free.”

Like many other advertisers, condom manufacturers have found that humor is the best way to reach the prime target for the market, 19-24 males. “It can make a serious subject approachable,” says Kitty Ravenhall, senior vice president and management representative at Bates, New York. “[The Trojan Man] is a voice of authority and purveyor of a serious message, but he does it in a way that people can people can relate to.”

Executives working in the category grumble that there’s a double stand ard when it comes to sexual themes, that it makes no sense for their ads to be subtle when other advertisers sell sex blatantly. “I’ve seen very risqué ads for a lot of different categories—clothing, fragrances,” says Tom Conely, vice president of marketing for Durex. “If you put a condom in the very same ad, you’d have a clearance issue.”

What might be the key to a change of attitude—both among broadcasters and the general public—is the recent prevalence of prescription-drug ads for products dealing with sensitive health issues, such as the Viagra spot with Bob Dole discussing erectile dysfunction. “It’s opening up the dialogue,” says Conely.

While the Kaiser findings indicate that consumers may already be more accepting of condom ads than networks, condom manufacturers and their agencies have a long way to go before consumers are as aware of taglines like “Hook up. Go wild” as they are of “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” Advertising budgets are small, with most of the media spending taking place in radio and print. The largest advertiser in the category, Trojan, spent $6 million in print and broadcast media last year, with $430,000 going to network TV and $1.7 million to cable.

Because of this relatively small bottom line, current policies are unlikely to change. “A condom is a license for certain sexual behavior—the media is sensitive to that,” says Bruce Silverman, CEO of media agency Initiative Media, Los Angeles. “For a relatively small amount of revenue, it is worth the headache? Even in a soft economy, some things are not worth the pain.”

Silverman doesn’t foresee change anytime soon—even in time for American Pie 3. “There is a streak of Puritanism in this country that exists from its very foundation,” he says. “I don’t care if we’re in the third millennium, it is still there.”