Networks Need to Grow Up About Condom Advertising

An Ad Age Editorial

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The broadcast networks have a funny grasp of reality. This statement isn't prompted by this fall's lineup of reality shows such as "Kid Nation" and "Great American Band." Rather, it's prompted by networks' unwillingness to deal with the subject of condoms in a mature and reasonable fashion.

As we wrote last week, while sexual situations are on the rise in prime time, safe sex isn't. At first glance, this isn't necessarily a problem. We would never advocate forcing condoms into a show's content for purposes of education, moralizing or product placement.

What is a problem, though, is the refusal by networks to run condom ads and the silly excuses used to defend such acts. In June, when an ad campaign for Trojan condoms was rejected by CBS and Fox, Fox said it had rejected the spot because "contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy." Fox later backed off that statement, and both networks now say they are not opposed to airing condom ads, regardless of whether they address contraceptive properties or public-health benefits.

But we can't remember the last time we've seen a condom ad at all, much less one that addresses contraception. In fact, off the top of our heads, we'd be hard-pressed to recall birth-control-pill commercials that discuss contraception rather than fringe benefits such as fewer menstrual cycles. Yet, the airwaves are littered with ads for Viagra and Cialis -- and they don't beat around the bush with that messaging. The ads might not be blatant, but neither are they subtle.

The networks may try to hide behind claims that such ads might upset the family-values crowd. But such assertions ring hollow from networks that have seen sexual scenes on TV double since 1998. Not only is it hypocritical but -- more important from a business standpoint -- it seems the networks are turning down good money for stupid reasons.

Church & Dwight's Jim Daniels has a vested interest in this battle, but he says it best: "You can advertise Viagra all you like, and Valtrex for herpes, but not advertise the condoms that would go on the erections to prevent the herpes."

That might seem a bit blunt to some, but the issue doesn't get any clearer than that.
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