Condom ads can definitely do better than this- here's how
Maybe you’ve seen the latest Durex ads while scrolling through Instagram: an attractive man or woman appears along with taglines such as “cool,” “honest,” or “charming,” followed by the revelation “and has undetected chlamydia.” Unlike most condom ads, which focus on thin or “barely there” material in order to convince consumers that sex with condoms can still be pleasurable, the new Date with Durex ads directly address the sexual health risks that condoms can prevent. The statistics in the campaign — “STDs are at their highest rates ever recorded in the U.S.” — underline the reason condoms are necessary in the first place, emphasizing health rather than pleasure.
However, these ads can also come across as fear-mongering or alarmist — use condoms, or else. During each ad, sexy music plays during the glamour shots of the featured bachelor/ette, but as soon as his or her STD is announced, the record scratches, and the screen darkens. The abrupt change in tone implies a shock, that this previously charming potential partner is now a risk, not to be trusted. On the one hand, these ads normalize STDs by acknowledging the reality that attractive people you want to date can have them, while also confirming the statistic that most people with STDs don’t know that they have them. On the other hand, using someone’s STD as a scare tactic to convince people to use condoms only increases the stigma around contracting an STD.
The Date with Durex ads are realistic in that they acknowledge that dating includes casual sex, which can put you at risk for infection. Half of sexually active people will contract an STI by age 25. But remember, an STI (sexually transmitted infection) is usually easily treatable, and not all STIs turn into STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). The subjects in the ads either have undetected chlamydia or gonorrhea, both of which are easily cured with antibiotics, but often do not show symptoms, or present symptoms that are easily mistaken for other conditions. If left untreated, however, both can cause serious health problems.
I applaud the ads for showing that people who are “caring,” “reliable,” and “smart,” can have all of these wonderful traits and still have undetected STDs. Having an STD does not make you a bad or unworthy person or partner. By raising awareness about silent STDs (and, inadvertently, the importance of getting tested), these ads could help increase conversations about sexual health between partners. However, Durex walks a pretty thin line when it comes to combating stigma. For example, in the Australian version of the ad, they include the statistic, “When you date you only see the best in your partner. Almost 100,000 sexually transmitted infections are diagnosed every year in Australia.” Sure, STDs are not the best, but they are also not the worst thing about someone. It is possible to teach consumers the facts about STDs without giving a negative connotation to being a carrier.
Durex is not the only condom company trying to address customers in a more realistic way. Last year’s Trojan campaign for their new XOXO condoms featured purple packaging and a discreet travel pack, “so both of you feel more comfortable buying and carrying it.” Trojan found that women accounted for less than one-third of the purchases of its products and tried to appeal to them directly by making its packaging less “masculine.” While it’s great to acknowledge that women buy condoms too, Trojan is simultaneously acknowledging the stigma around buying condoms while also reinforcing it by making their products less noticeable instead of just owning the fact that woman have safe sex. The ads could also be interpreted as yet another suggestion that it is a woman’s responsibility to ensure that she and her partner practice safe sex.
So how can condom ads do better? Tell us the facts, but don’t try to intimidate us into using condoms by stigmatizing STDs. Normalize safe sex and talking to your partner about your testing status. And please, acknowledge women as your customers with more than just purple packaging.