Condomania followed the AIDS crisis, as medical professionals around the world urged at-risk populations—especially the promiscuous—to stave the epidemic by wrapping their willies (or the willies of their partners) before engaging in sex. Alarmed by the growing number of teen-agers contracting HIV, educators at hundreds of American schools took their cue from the docs, providing free rubbers to students on school grounds.
These distribution programs destigmatized condoms, yet only one company dared to openly market prophylactics for the young set. In January 1992, the country’s second-largest condom manufacturer, Schmid Laboratories of Sarasota, Fla., maker of the Ramses and Sheik brands, introduced the “Safe Play” condom. Packaged in a pink-and-black flip-top box that resembled a pack of cigarettes, Safe Play condoms also included a free key-chain that doubled as a carrying case. Any doubts about who the product was made for were dispelled by the words emblazoned on the package: “For Young Lovers.”
Schmid ran an ad in the trade press announcing its new product—“New Ramses Safe Play condoms. Compelling reasons for a youth brand condom”—and Drug Store News noted the marketing revolution with a story: “Schmid is the first condom manufacturer to market a product specifically for the youth market, knowing that teens represent a consumer segment who keenly desire their own group identity.”
It made business sense to tap the lucrative teen-age market, given that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 50 percent of sexually active minors use condoms. By contrast, a recent University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) medical school study estimates that only 25 percent of sexually active heterosexual adults with multiple partners used rubbers. (The UCSF study found that between 50 and 70 percent of gay men sheathed themselves before sex.)
Initially, Schmid marketed its teen condom vigorously, convincing skittish executives at the Fox Network and MTV to run Safe Play television spots. Following Magic Johnson’s disclosure of his HIV status, Schmid announced that it hoped to reach “60 million” kids.
But instead of reaching 60 million kids, Schmid pulled Safe Play off the American market within a year, and the company now denies that the brand was being marketed to anyone but adults.
“We do not market to minors,” says Schmid spokesman John Blutenthal.
Blutenthal’s denial is a classic example of corporate backpedaling, of course. The proof is on the package: Besides the “For Young Lovers” motto, the makers printed this warning on the flip-top box, the likes of which grace no other Schmid brand of condoms:
RESPONSIBLE SEX IS NOT JUST SAFER SEX. Be sure you are ready emotionally and physically. Not having sex (abstinence) is the most effective way to avoid AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Respect your beliefs and your family’s guidance. Don’t be pushed into sex.
If you take Blutenthal at his word that Schmid isn’t marketing to minors, then this warning seems to be counseling adults to seek their family’s guidance on sexual matters. Blutenthal won’t say if he consults his family on his sexual practices.
Meanwhile in Europe, Schmid’s parent company continues to successfully promote the Safe Play brand to teen-agers.
“Safe Play has sold well here, yes,” says London International Group spokeswoman Justine Samuel from her British office. “Safe Play is one of the brands for youths. We have another, “Just for Fun,’ which we sell in Germany.”
Schmid may have abandoned Safe Play in the United States, but the $200-million-a-year industry hasn’t ignored the American teen market. It can’t afford to—today’s teen market is tomorrow’s adult market.
With this in mind, condom manufacturers have become calculated accessories to the sex lives of American teen-agers. But Schmid’s Safe Play about-face reveals the industry’s reticence to admit its role as the manufacturers hide behind the skirts of schools and other sex education advocates who will vend their wares for them. Call it safer safe-sex marketing.
Timorous about discussing adolescents’ use of condoms, the manufacturers simultaneously market their products to kids. Industry leader Carter-Wallace, which makes Trojan condoms and controls 56 percent of the industry, distributes to clinics and schools a glossy 8 1/2-by-11 poster featuring a picture of a Trojan condom and the tag line: “Get Real—If you’re not ready to buy, carry, or use a condom, you’re not ready for sex.”
In 1992—the same year that Safe Play debuted—Carter-Wallace began marketing the “Mentor” condom, which includes an applicator device for novice users. Over-the-counter condoms are ordinarily sold in quantities of three, 12, and 24 to a pack. Mentor is the only Trojan condom sold in six-packs, a quantity that sex educators say kids like because it falls in between the number of condoms they might use in a weekend and a surplus that might be discovered by a nosy parent. Likewise, Safe Play was the only Schmid brand packaged in that quantity.
Carter-Wallace spokeswoman Lois Brown concedes that Mentor is for new users, but denies that the product courts teen-agers. Trojan does not market to minors and did not attempt to compete with Safe Play, she says. And the poster’s message and Mentors’ guiding hand, she stresses, are intended for “young people.”
Young people over 18.
Deborah Hauser-McKinney, who works at the D.C.-based school-clinic lobby Advocates for Youth, says bulk sales to schools remain the industry’s favorite—not to mention politically safest—method of reaching teen-age consumers. Free condom distribution earns specific brands enduring customer loyalty, she says, which carries over to purchases in stores.
Young users buy “what they associate with their school, their university, their health department,” says Hauser-McKinney, making nurses, sex-education teachers, and health advocates the de facto promotional force for the manufacturers.
Corporate timidity extends beyond Schmid. An employee of Carter-Wallace acknowledges that American companies still market to minors, but disguise their efforts in order to deflect the fire of conservatives. Safe Play ran counter to this logic, this anonymous source says, which resulted in its demise.
Advocates for Youth is partially underwritten by Trojan producer Carter-Wallace, according to company spokesperson Brown. Yet when asked if supporting school-based condom distribution programs is tantamount to marketing to kids, Brown distances the company from the issue.
“It’s a touchy subject. It’s a school endorsed program,” she says. “Carter-Wallace doesn’t want to be perceived as promoting teen-age sex.”
In some instances, condom manufacturers like Schmid, Carter-Wallace, and third-place Ansell have gone so far as to pay for school conferences on safe sex and then ask that their corporate names not be credited, says Hauser-McKinney.
Leslie Kantor says the condom makers have been cowed because “the idea of sexually active teen-agers has been so demonized” in the U.S. With conservatives publicly attacking condom allocation programs in New York City and elsewhere, “the distribution programs aren’t going to be around much longer,” says Kantor, who works at the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a sex educators’ organization based in New York City. “We’re struggling pretty hard to keep them in place.”
So far, the organized opponents of condoms have spent their political energy vilifying school districts that distribute condoms. That anti-condom forces might redirect that anger at manufacturers that openly market to adolescents was apparently too great a risk for Schmid.
“I think it’s such a hot tamale that they don’t want to mess with it,” says Hauser-McKinney, who once managed the District’s Condomrageous condom store. “They’re motivated by profit. We’re motivated by public health.”
Most political campaigns against condom giveaways are organized by right-wing organizations, such as Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. But family-values doyenne Schlafly says that the religious right has yet to go directly after a condom manufacturer.
“Never thought of it,” Schlafly says. “Is it a good idea?”
Other conservative activists, especially those on the religious right, are more candid about planning such a direct legal assault.
“I’m looking for and hoping for the first case to come along where a child has become infected with AIDS following the failure of a condom provided by the schools,” says Larry Crain, a Nashville attorney affiliated with Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), as well as the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va., Christian legal foundation. Crain says that Schlafly’s Eagle Forum is one of the groups he has tapped to search for such a case.
“If a suit were brought at the state level, then I would certainly bring in product liability. I would bring in the manufacturer as a defendant,” notes Crain, who has sued the Falmouth (Mass.) School District to block both free condom distribution to junior-high students who have spoken with a counselor and sales to high-school students via a vending machine. The Falmouth schools won the first round; Crain says ACLJ and Rutherford are preparing an appeal.
Some smaller condom manufacturers, with limited promotional budgets, have pursued the market abandoned by Safe Play. Dan Hauser of Condomrageous (Deborah Hauser-McKinney’s brother) reels off the names of some of these specialty brands:
“Rubber Ducky, Global Protection, yeah. And the colors,” he says. “There’s one called Dick and Jane, with a cartoon, two stick figures, Dick and Jane. “See Dick, see Jane,’ you know. And then there’s Jane’s father, and it says, “Don’t get caught dickin’ Jane.’ ”
Safe Play never sold well at Condomrageous, says Hauser, hampered perhaps by the poor advertising effort. Nor was the product helped by its resemblance to a pack of cigarettes, says Amanda Deaver of Advocates for Youth.
“You want to be telling kids that this is something that is good for you, and then you base its appeal on something bad for you?” she asks.
As the cowardly condom makers retrench, so does their market. Despite increased advocacy and a massive CDC public-information campaign, the condom market has flattened out since 1992, according to an Information Resources study cited in a June Wall Street Journal article. Schmid was particularly hard-hit; sales for its Ramses product line fell off by 25 percent over the last year. Carter-Wallace’s Trojan line, the best seller, fell off by 3 percent.
Will the decline in the condom market be paralleled by a surge in HIV infection? That conservatives see unprotected sex as more a question of morality than a public health problem is not surprising. What is surprising is that the industry that made famous the phrase “for the prevention of disease only” refuses to do its part to save young lives.