Sex on TV Is OK as Long as It's Not Safe

Despite Rise in Racy Content on Network and Cable, Condom Marketers Can't Penetrate Prime Time

By Published on .

Where does the rubber meet the road? Not in Hollywood.

There's been a surge in sexual content on TV, and the coming fall season features a prime-time show on CBS about swingers, yet America's contraceptive manufacturers are still finding it hard to get lucky in Tinseltown.
Sex sells, but good luck selling condoms between commercial breaks.
Sex sells, but good luck selling condoms between commercial breaks. Credit: Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy

That's despite the fact that conservative watchdog Parents Television Council last week issued a scathing report on the state of family-friendly TV. The PTC's conclusion: Sexual references swelled 22% during early prime time when compared with programming from the same time slot six years ago. And according to "Sex on TV 4," a 2005 study by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, the number of sexual scenes on TV has nearly doubled since 1998.

Suburban swingers
More, CBS has greenlit "Swingtown," a move that at first blush appears as manna from heaven for the $416-million-a-year condom market. After all, that show is about two generations of friends and neighbors in a Chicago suburb who "explore new freedoms and seek connections with each other in the midst of the socio/sexual revolution."

In other words, swingers.

All this should be great news for contraceptive manufacturers, right? Not quite.

Carol Barbee, the executive producer of "Swingtown," notes, "It's about sexual freedom, but because it's set in the '70s, it's not about sexual responsibility." She added: "It's about emotional responsibility -- or lack thereof. I just want to hold the mirror up. It'll be interesting to see how far [the network] lets us go."

How far CBS -- or any network -- will let its programming go in matters of sex and the use of contraception is, of course, a touchy subject these days.

In June, an ad campaign for Trojan condoms was rejected by both CBS and Fox because of concerns about the ad's creative content. In the ads, which did appear on NBC and ABC, as well as MTV, anthropomorphic pigs are rebuffed by comely women in a swank cocktail lounge -- until one of them purchases a Trojan condom from a men's-room vending machine and morphs into a handsome fellow who quickly receives a warmer welcome from a woman at the bar.

Spokesmen for both networks declined to comment about specific policies regarding condom ads, but did note for the record that both CBS and Fox had accepted ads for Trojan condoms as late as last March. They said the networks are not opposed to airing condom ads, regardless of whether such ads emphasized solely their contraceptive properties or just their public-health benefits in mitigating the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

But in a written response to Trojan reported by The New York Times, Fox said that it had rejected the pigs spot because "contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy" -- Orwellian doublespeak at its best.

Scott Grogan, a spokesman for Fox, declined to comment on the statement beyond saying it was "not comfortable calling it reflective of the network's position" on condom advertising.

Mr. Grogan said it asked Trojan to resubmit the ad with changes but the marketer did not comply.

Asking for it
Cynics note that Trojan received far more bang for its buck from the ban than if Fox and CBS had simply run the ads, and that its agency, Kaplan Thaler Group, may have deliberately pushed the envelope creatively to incite a ban.
Brand Identity
Brand Identity
Trojan: ABC, NBC and MTV all ran the controversial ad; CBS and Fox rejected it.

"It frustrates the heck out of us," says Pam Piligian, senior VP for group accounts at Fitzgerald & Co., which oversees advertising for Durex, the largest condom brand globally but a distant second to Trojan in the U.S.

Ms. Piligian sees a double standard at work, saying, "We're trying to be responsible, but I think 'responsible' is different word for advertisers than for program managers."

So while condom commercials are few and far between on TV, sex is alive and well -- and getting even more explicit. On HBO -- which does not take advertising -- the sexual bar has been raised, so to speak, with its new program, "Tell Me You Love Me," which has taken a lot of heat from critics such as the New York Post's Linda Stasi.

"The truth is, if you get paid to have sex, you're a hooker -- not an actor. If you get paid to get filmed having sex, you're a porn worker. And if you get paid to have other people film you totally naked having sex, you're an exhibitionist and the watchers are voyeurs," she wrote in a recent review. "But because it's HBO, if your spouse, kids or anyone else comes in while you're watching this show, you can say, 'It's not porn -- it's HBO!'"

Spring break
Jim Daniels, VP-marketing for Church & Dwight, Trojan's parent company, said he's frustrated, and instead of integrating his brand into TV, he spends most of his budget getting his product sampled by students on spring break in collegiate hotspots like Daytona, Florida.

"Sixty-five million Americans have an incurable STD. Three million unwanted pregnancies a year -- half of which end in abortion," said Mr. Daniels. "And yet you can advertise Viagra all you like, and Valtrex for [genital] herpes, but not advertise the condoms that would go on the erections that prevent herpes."

With "Swingtown" headed into production next month, Ms. Barbee said she would have "trepidation" about integrating a condom like Trojan or Durex into the show, mostly for artistic reasons.

"We wouldn't be against it," Ms. Barbee said, "unless CBS makes us. But we're doing a show about adult, free-thinking people having sex with whomsoever they choose. You don't want a scene to be a PSA for safe sex, and we don't want to punish people with TV morality."

Sexual armageddon
Meanwhile, at the other show she executive produces, the post-nuclear apocalypse drama "Jericho," Ms. Barbee is even less optimistic about prophylactics making an appearance.

"We were going to do an episode where they run out of condoms, because, well, they've run out of everything," she jokes, "But nobody has time for sex on 'Jericho' -- we're too busy blowing everything up."
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