Condom Ads Hit Network TV

Two television networks will make history tonight when they broadcast commercials for Trojan condoms during prime-time viewing hours, the first such network exposure for the male contraceptive devices.

The WB network has agreed to air Trojan commercials after 9 p.m., starting with a 30-second spot during "Smallville." NBC has also approved a Trojan commercial, and Trojan was negotiating on Tuesday to place a commercial in the network's 10 p.m. hour tonight.

Though no formal government or industry restrictions prevent condom commercials from being shown in prime time, condom ads have traditionally been banished to late-night hours or cable networks. But television airwaves have recently become more open to products dealing with sexual health, evidenced by frequent network commercials for erectile dysfunction drugs and female contraception.

The new Trojan campaign includes four commercials focusing on sexual health statistics compiled by Trojan. The first commercial, viewable on Trojan's Web site before its television premiere, begins with a graphic explaining that 40 percent of people who know they are HIV positive do not divulge that fact to their sexual partners. All of the spots will include the message: "Other than abstinence, there is only one way to protect yourself. Use a condom every time."

This is a stark departure from Trojan's advertising from the past seven years, which included a mythical, humorous superhero known as Trojan Man. The serious tone is perhaps considered more appropriate for the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. prime-time hours, which draw the most viewers.

"Our drive really is not necessarily to get on prime time, but to get an important public health message out," said Jim Daniels, Trojan's vice president of marketing. "Our statistics show that 15 million Americans each year contract STDs. We believe that the way we've communicated that is respectful and tasteful."

Condom Sales Number Hundreds of Millions

Information Resources Inc., which tracks sales of retail products, estimates that U.S. condom sales topped $230 million in the 12 months ended April 17. The IRI estimate excludes Wal-Mart because the mass merchandising behemoth doesn't release sales results.

Church & Dwight, the maker of Trojans, estimates U.S. condom sales top $400 million annually, and the company is hopeful that increased awareness could push sales even higher. Daniels said Trojan has increased its advertising budget "significantly" to get behind the new campaign.

"Network television is an efficient means of reaching consumers, and the prime-time hours are probably the best time to do that," Daniels said.

The Kaplan Thaler Group, which created the ad campaign, believes the network prime-time exposure is an opportunity for a breakthrough for the condom industry to communicate the public health risks associated with unprotected sex. Linda Kaplan Thaler, chief executive officer, said the company relished the opportunity to take the prophylactic conversation to a higher level.

"In the past, it's really been about locker room humor," she said. "We have to hold the people who are engaging in sexual acts in a higher esteem. They may not be in a relationship that's going to last a lifetime, but they don't want to transmit a disease."

Kaplan Thaler said she didn't anticipate any complaints about the nature of the commercials, noting that all four spots include the implication that abstinence is one of the most effective ways to protect against disease transmission.

"This is not an advertisement that is endorsing premarital sex," she said.

Negotiating With Other Networks

Trojan's Daniels said the company was negotiating to have the ads cleared for use on other networks. One advertising industry expert said the WB's lineup of programming, which includes shows that appeal to teenagers and adults in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic, probably made it the most obvious of the networks to be the launching pad for condom marketing.

"It's a little more surprising for NBC, and the other networks will probably take it on a case-by-case, show-by-show basis," said Jack Myers, editor of the Jack Myers Media Business Report. "In the end, it will all depend on how much money is on the table."

Myers estimated that, depending on the viewership, buying a 30-second commercial spot during prime-time network hours could cost anywhere from $70,000 to $350,000.

Both Daniels and Kaplan Thaler said they were not concerned about a possible backlash from religious or conservative groups who might take offense to condom commercials. The first commercial includes an attractive young couple gazing wistfully at one another, but the superimposed messages keep the commercial's focus on potential health risks and responsible sexual activity, they said.

Myers agreed, noting that despite some recent social outcries over programming that some groups consider offensive, the influx of other sexual health-related advertising suggests that these types of messages are becoming less of a taboo.

"In the current political climate it's probably easier not to air condom ads, so it's a tough decision for the networks," he said. "But I don't think there's any possibility of any meaningful backlash in terms of an impact on ratings or on other advertisers."