Condom Media: Effectiveness vs. Popularity?

Previously in the HealthyHeels blog, we’ve written about the misperception that some condom brands perform significantly better than others. It turns out that, in order to be available to US consumers, all FDA-approved condoms must pass rigorous minimum safety and quality trials (having at least 996 of a 1000 condoms pass a “leak” test to ensure they will not break during sex). There have also been studies examining condom break rates between brands which have found that breaking was extremely uncommon, and that breaking was not related to brand type.

Still, the perception that some condom brands are more effective than others is common. In a recent public condom campaign in Washington DC, there was widespread concern among highschool- and college-aged students about the quality of the free condoms available. So much so that local health officials re-thought their choice of condom – despite the comparable efficacy of condom brands.

So if the FDA-approved condoms are all held up to rigorous testing and standards, and all perform similarly to each other in terms of break rates, then what accounts for the common perception that some are more effective than others?

Along with about a dozen million others, I was seriously into the show Mad Men. I think one of the more interesting aspects of the show is how branding, recognition and advertisement all affect how we perceive products. Our perceptions of quality, popularity and trustworthiness of many products are very much tied to product presentation: what the packaging looks like and what the ads communicate. There are tons of commercials and ads out there for safer sex products, the most prominently featured of which are probably personal lubricants and male condoms. When students I meet with felt iffy about condom brands provided by Student Wellness, they also seemed to prefer brands with larger media recognition. This had me wondering: “does the marketing and labeling of condoms affect our perception of the products themselves?”

Duane Reade protection
Photo: “Duane Reade Protection” by J Pride. Flickr Creative Commons.

There is no real answer to this, but while doing research on the media campaigns of various condom brands, I did come across some pretty interesting stuff.

One interesting thing is the amount of money dedicated to condom media and advertising by each of the condom brands. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, “Carter-Wallace spent a high of just $2.2 million in a year on advertising for Trojan condoms on cable TV, and less than $500,000 on broadcast; in 2000, its cable buy fell to $1.7 million. Its competitor Ansell registered less than $40,000 in annual TV spending for LifeStyles condoms during the 1997-2000 period.”

Another interesting thing is the regulations on condom ads through the years. Fun fact: condom commercials only started airing on national networks in 1991. There are also lots of regulations on condom ads. According to the Kaiser report: “Some of the networks and stations that accept condom commercials impose certain limits on them, such as restricting the time of day they can be run, or requiring their messages to be focused on disease prevention [such as sexually transmitted infections] rather than birth control.” The Kaiser report also spells out the restrictions on condom ads by national network.

Again, there’s no definitive answer to why some brands are perceived as better than others, and it is largely influenced by a number of factors. Still, the role of the media in promoting (or not promoting) condoms is very interesting. So, I open up the question to you our readers: what do you think? Do you think condom branding has affected our ideas surrounding condom use?