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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.

But data from a recent survey of viewers of various ages who were shown a condom ad inserted into the commercials during a one-hour prime time drama suggest otherwise.

"It just wasn't such a big deal, basically," says Susan Kannel, senior analyst for the Social Policy Research Institute in Washington.

People in the experiment saw a Trojan condom commercial sandwiched between a commercial for an airline and a sale at Sears.

Although some networks have suggested condom ads negatively affect viewers' opinions of the network and of products advertised after the condom commercial, it proved not to be true.

"[The condom commercial] was neither universally deplored, nor universally loved," she tells WebMD. "It was just sort of on par with the other commercials they saw."

But people definitely took notice of it. When asked about the commercials they had seen during the experiment, more people recalled the condom spot than any of the other commercials.

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