Of course, networks can hardly purport to care about what children might see when the airwaves are now filled with ads for erectile dysfunction drugs and female contraceptive patches. Do Jack and Jill wonder if Viagra® is some kind of adult candy or if the Ortho Evra® birth control patch denotes membership in a special club? Surely one thing is obvious to kids: the shiny, happy inhabitants of these ads are thrilled about their patches and pills. And the pharmaceutical companies behind these ads are delighted to see them airing around the clock on practically every channel in the cable universe except Nickelodeon.
Last May, Church & Dwight Co., Inc., manufacturer of Trojan® brand condoms, announced that they were seeking to advertise their prophylactics during primetime network TV broadcasts. They promised their TV spots would differ substantially from the comical radio ads by concentrating on sexual health statistics and disease prevention.
"Our drive really is not necessarily to get on primetime, but to get an important public health message out," said Jim Daniels, Trojan's vice president of marketing. Sure, Pinocchio. You want us to believe your company suddenly decided -- 25 years into the AIDS epidemic -- that now is the time to spend millions of dollars on public service messages in primetime?
That particular spin lacks all credibility. What Mr. Daniels or someone at Church & Dwight should have said is this: Hey look, people, if sitcom characters can get laughs from condom jokes and big pharmaceutical companies can advertise their boner pills and genital herpes drugs, then you better start thinking up some mighty compelling reasons to keep us off the air. In fact, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released back in 2001 found that Americans are more open to condom ads than networks want to acknowledge. In a sample of 1,142 adults, 71% of participants supported condom ads on network television.
Church & Dwight's pseudo-public service strategy worked in a sense. Last June, NBC and the WB agreed to run a new Trojan commercial in primetime. ABC, CBS, FOX and UPN have been "in discussions" about airing them. However, the rubbermakers over at Church & Dwight must have believed they had a pretty good shot at exposure since they hired The Kaplan Thaler Group, a New York advertising agency, to develop the "Make a Difference" campaign -- a series of four Trojan commercials, "all with a poignant and sobering message."
And so the first commercial airs. Folksy rock music ... simple white type on a stark black background ... then a model-gorgeous young heterosexual couple in zombie-like lust shares an iPod on a subway platform. Wait. Let's back up to the white type on the black background. "40 percent of people who are HIV positive don't tell their partners ..." and "... other than abstinence, there is only one way to protect yourself. Use a condom every time." There's your "poignant, sobering message."
"In creating this campaign for Trojan, we knew we had to break new ground, be provocative and reach people at the right time," said Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO and chief creative officer of The Kaplan Thaler Group. "We believe the combination of a breakthrough, message-driven campaign with first-ever primetime exposure will make a huge difference." Actually, Linda, this campaign sucks out loud. The abstinence reference is obviously designed to pander to all those raving religious crazies who think no one should have sex outside the marriage bed -- and you needn't have bothered, because those people are going to hate your ad anyway, sight unseen, and mount massive self-righteous e-mail campaigns in protest since they think condoms are evil and promote promiscuity. Also, you would have to have been in a persistent vegetative state the past twenty years in order to believe a phrase like "the only way to protect yourself is to use a condom every time" breaks new ground. It's been around longer than the Olsen twins.
Creative vision and originality are missing from the Trojan ad; scare tactics are not. "40 percent of people who are HIV positive don't tell their partners. ..." Church & Dwight chief executive officer James Craigie said it's all about changing people's perceptions around unprotected sex. "We're trying to shock them and shake their confidence," he declared. What's shocking is that there is, in fact, no evidence that 40% of people with HIV don't disclose to partners. There are plenty of studies about disclosure, conducted by everybody from the National Institute of Mental Health and Centers for Disease Control to Emory University and the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. The 40% figure isn't there. Not even close. Hey, you Church & Dwight rubberfreaks! You made it up! Busted!
Apparently, no one at NBC, the WB or any cable network that agreed to air the ad questioned the statistic before airing it. NBC spokesperson Shannon Jacobs said her network reviewed the Trojan spot and decided to air it "given the health-oriented nature of this particular campaign." Suppose the Trojan ad said something like, "40 percent of women get pregnant on purpose to trap men into marrying them." Bet that would have made Jacobs pause from swilling her latte long enough to make some calls.
Equally appalling is the fact that not a single mainstream American media outlet questioned the statistic, either. For them, the story was all about condom ads coming to primetime and what all those -- sigh -- family values groups thought about it. It's as if reporters viewed the ad, shrugged, and said, "40%? Sounds about right," and then returned to wringing their hands over Lindsey Lohan's weight loss and slobbering over the remains of Michael Jackson's career. That no one bothered to contact the CDC or even a local AIDS service organization for verification or comment is a significant indicator of the wretched state of journalism in this country.
The lone organized objection to the content of the Trojan ad came from the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA). In a letter to the chairman of Church & Dwight, NAPWA executive director Terje Anderson called for immediate withdrawal of the Trojan ad, declaring it to be "deeply disturbing and irresponsible" and correctly observing that it "only serves to heighten the stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS." Ultimately, Church & Dwight did pull the Trojan ad, but not before it had aired on multiple networks, viewed by millions of Americans who will never know the 40% figure is spurious fiction created by cynical, creatively compromised hacks at New York's Kaplan Thaler advertising agency.
With due respect to NAPWA's Terje Anderson, disturbing and irresponsible don't begin to describe this fiasco. Church & Dwight and Kaplan Thaler Group have wasted a momentous opportunity to bring respectful, relevant condom advertising to television. Rather than offer Americans a fresh concept and some positive, truthful information -- like the fact that Trojans now come in 29 varieties -- they chose a trite, loathsome and fear-based approach that further stigmatizes a vulnerable population.
David Salyer is an HIV-positive journalist, educator and activist living in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads safer-sex presentations for men and has facilitated workshops for people infected or affected by HIV since 1994. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.