Thursday, October 13, 2016
October 13, 2016: Birth Control in America: Condom Commercials
[On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in New York City. So this week, on the 100th anniversary of that moment, I’ll AmericanStudy Sanger and other histories and images connected to this still-controversial subject, leading up a special weekend post highlighting a great scholarly book on the topic!]
Three telling stages in the history of advertising birth control.
1) Protect the Troops: About a third of the way down that Daily Mail article from February 2013 are two very distinct images serving a very similar purpose: asking soldiers serving in a wartime theater to use condoms. The World War I image starkly pitches “Dough-Boy Prophylactic,” using only its active ingredients and its grim purpose (“For the Prevention of Syphilis & Gonorrhea”); the World War II ad uses seemingly every trick in the advertising book, from colors and a cute condom mascot (who proclaims “It’s still a blast”) to a graph (“The PLEASURE GRAPH,” natch) and a striking central quote (“I take one everywhere I take my PENIS!!,” proclaims the soldier on whom the ad focuses) to very raunchy humor (“WARNING! Objects in condoms may appear larger than they actually are!!”), to sell its product. Clearly over this 25-year period advertising and marketing had significantly evolved, but so too had the image of condoms, from a medical necessity to a source of excitement and pleasure.
2) A 1975 Controversy: Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) prohibited condom commercials from airing on television. That prohibition was not lifted until a 1979 Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit against broadcast networks (and for more than a decade after that condom commercials were still nonexistent on network television), but in 1975 one network, KNTV in San Jose, decided to run a Trojan commercial nevertheless. That commercial was hugely controversial and quickly pulled from the network, but what’s striking to this AmericanStudier is the opposite: how much the ad taps into conservative narratives of morality (opening with a quote from Ecclesiastes!) and family (making “responsible parenting” the chief goal of condom use) in order to make condoms as nonthreatening and traditional as possible (the ad also emphasizes Trojan’s half-century of existence). Condoms couldn’t help but become part of the decade’s debates over abortion, sex, and morality, but this ad locates them very differently in those debates than we might expect.
3) Banned Ads: I don’t watch a lot of live television other than sporting events, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a condom ad on TV (whereas seemingly every third ad during sports broadcasts is for medication to treat erectile disfunction). On the other hand, if and when programs or compilations of banned commercials appear, condom ads are far and away the kinds of commercials most frequently included in that category. It stands to reason that condom ads would veer into a level of sexiness that would make network executives cringe, although to be honest there was far more sex in an average episode of Two and a Half Men then in any of the commercials on those lists. Which, when coupled with the fact that the highly non-sexual 1975 Trojan ad was likewise pulled off the air, makes clear that it’s not so much the content of the ads that leads to these concerns and responses. Instead, I would argue that condoms specifically, like birth control more generally, connect directly to narratives of sexuality with which many Americans remain profoundly uncomfortably and with which as a community we still struggle to engage.
Last post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or images you’d highlight?