Getting it on
WHEN you consider the crimes against humanity committed by advertisers over the years, it is hard to believe that the offering which has provoked more complaints than any other in Britain was an attempt to save lives. “Thou shalt always wear a condom” was dreamed up in 1995, and clocked 1 187 complaints, thus earning the distinction of most troublesome ad in the advertising standards authority’s 40-year history.
If the complaint had been that the slogan was lame, and unlikely to persuade people to wear condoms, then 1 187 critics would have had a point.
The idea that such ads are considered offensive is fairly amazing, but on reflection what is more amazing is the fact that they are always so clumsy.
With almost 20 years of Aids behind us, and a teen pregnancy rate at the top of the European table, the puzzling truth remains that we still haven’t come up with a way of encouraging people to use condoms.
The “Thou shalt” slogan was invented by the British safety council. Some might say that that is the explanation: public bodies are never very sharp when it comes to changing behaviour. If we want to promote safe sex, in other words, we will have to ask big business for help.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this might be true. Last month a survey of 16- to 25-year-olds suggested that, contrary to popular belief, young people love capitalism. The sample reported friendly enthusiasm for big brands, a receptive attitude to their message, and a decidedly low opinion of the protesters who campaign against them. According to a new book called Good Business: Your World Needs You, logos should be seen not as the enemy of society, but its best hope of progressive reform. Corporate communication skills are now so awesome that “If you want to change the world, do it through brands.”
One very good way to test this theory would be to apply it to sex. If business is so powerful, and youngsters so receptive to its methods, the people who make condoms should be able to work out a way to get young people to put them on. It cannot be that difficult, and the dividends to all concerned would be considerable. All that it would take would be one really good advertising slogan.
The best sexual health adverts have been ones that acknowledged where the difficulty lies. The problem, particularly for young people, isn’t buying condoms, but putting them on. A campaign in the 90s showed a series of photographs of a couple heading towards bed, and at each stage posed the question: is now the time to mention condoms? In reality, unfortunately, the answer is always no. It is a remarkable fact - but a revealing one - that unprotected sex frequently takes place between two people who are both carrying condoms.
It is another fact, however regrettable, that women are more motivated by contraception than men. The obvious solution is therefore to make it easy for them to suggest that a condom is used, but this is still more difficult than we might think. When asked to account for unprotected sex, the explanation young women often offer is that they didn’t like to introduce the subject of condoms for fear of appearing to be “forward”. In other words, mad as it sounds, a fiction still persists that, right until the moment it happens, girls should act as if they do not realise they are about to have sex.
So how do we help them make their partners put on a condom? School sex education classes are legendary for the excruciating lesson when everyone has to practice putting a condom on a banana or something, but technique is hardly the issue. Struggling with the application is something couples who feel comfortable together will not have a problem with; but these are not the couples we should be concerned about. It’s the people who feel unable to acknowledge out loud the fact that they are about to have sex who need help, and so what would clearly help would be a language for saying it.
Before Aids, there was no single word for condom. It was a minefield of slang, and whichever word you went for - rubber johnny, french letter - you risked exposing yourself to ridicule. With “condom” we got a word we were not responsible for choosing, but what we still don’t have is a common phrase for using one, which is so instantly recognisable that it could not be embarrassing.
If condom manufacturers could craft a catchphrase women could quote at the relevant moment, the chances of their product being used would go up dramatically. This is what advertisers are supposed to be good at. Budweiser’s “Whassup” was endlessly quoted; ironically by some, and not others. Unfortunately, it was meaningless nonsense, but the same power of advertising could surely be harnessed through a campaign to provide a phrase for introducing condoms that anyone could quote.
To invoke something off the telly - a phrase protected with all the credibility and confidence of a global brand - would be a lot easier than writing our own script. Advertisers should surely be able to manage that for us. Because, after all, aren’t we supposed to be worth it?