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Condom Ads on TV Remain Controversial

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

June 19, 2001 -- Sex sells. Many advertising companies have demonstrated that. But does safe sex sell?

If you're channel surfing during prime time, on network television you may see a group of 20-something women discuss their lifelong friendship -- and their similar choice in oral birth control. Or a woman lovingly speak of her husband's decision to use Viagra for the sake of their relationship. What are you least likely to see? Probably a commercial for condoms.

Viewers first saw condom TV ads in 1991, when Fox Television became the first major network to accept them.

Today, three of the six networks -- CBS, Fox, and NBC -- allow condom commercials, but limit when they can run. Cable networks that run condom commercials include MTV, Comedy Central, BET, CNN, TNT, USA, and TBS.

While acknowledging that some progress has been made in the last decade as far as willingness to air the commercials, researcher Vicky Rideout, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif., says condoms have more advertising restrictions than other products. Thus, condom makers are put in a position of trying to appeal to people who buy condoms while conforming to the strict network standards that prohibit anything too erotic or sexually suggestive.

"I think from the condom companies' perspective they would like to find something that passes muster with the networks ... and that they thought would be effective," she says. "But three of the networks don't allow condom ads at all -- not matter what."

In a new report presented today at a media briefing in New York, Rideout says an increase in ads for prescription drugs beginning in 1997 -- due to relaxed restrictions by the FDA -- changed things for health-oriented commercials.

"Suddenly, viewers became used to seeing previously undiscussed subjects airing on TV, from Zovirax commercials about herpes to Viagra ads about erectile dysfunction," her report states.

Still, Rideout tells WebMD that networks such as the WB -- which airs "Dawson's Creek," in which the teenage characters discuss condom use -- won't show condom commercials because of perceptions that it might be "an issue" with some of their viewers.

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