WASHINGTON — This week, for the first time in its 54-year history, Newsweek magazine carries a condom advertisement. And, unlike many condom ads seen on rare occasions in the past, it does not feature a hand-holding silhouetted couple walking into the sunset and discussing family planning.
Instead, this ad shows the full and worried face of a young woman saying: "I'll do a lot for love, but I'm not ready to die for it."
When asked why the magazine changed its mind on condom advertising--and chose to run this particular ad--a Newsweek official said: "In a word, AIDS."
Until recently, all three television networks and a majority of newspapers and magazines have followed a long-standing self-imposed ban against accepting condom advertising. But because condoms are the only known way to prevent sexual transmission of the AIDS virus, the deadly epidemic has begun forcing media officials to rethink their policies.
The debate over condom advertising has raged for many years, but it has escalated lately as a result of Planned Parenthood's campaign against teen-age pregnancy and, more recently, of the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Several major reports on AIDS released this fall, including that of the U.S. surgeon general, have recommended condoms as a method of protection against infection by the AIDS virus--a fact that introduces a critical public health issue into the continuing argument over whether it is appropriate to advertise contraceptives to the public.
"There is no reason to censor contraceptive advertising, especially now, when we have two epidemics--AIDS and teen-age pregnancy--going on at the same time," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health, which has scheduled hearings on the issue early next month.
"The networks refuse those ads, saying that the whole subject is too controversial," he added. "I think that is highly irresponsible, coming from media people who think nothing about running ads for feminine deodorant sprays or hemorrhoid medication on the air. They shouldn't think that their sense of taste is more important than disease control."
KRON to Donate Revenue
Last week, television station KRON, the NBC affiliate in San Francisco--the city with the second highest rate of AIDS in the nation after New York--announced that it would begin accepting condom commercials, would donate the advertising revenue to AIDS research and require the condom manufacturer to make a matching donation.
In addition, WRTV, the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis, announced this week that it too would accept such ads. Both stations said that the ads must emphasize disease prevention, rather than birth control.
But, even as some policies are beginning to change, it still appears unlikely that there will be a mass rush among the media to allow condom advertising, particularly on the part of the three major networks. Officials from all three said that they believe they are fulfilling their public service responsibilities through their overall news coverage of AIDS.
"We still feel it's inappropriate to air that product on television," said Jeff Tolvin, ABC's director of business information. "A significant portion of our audience finds these products inappropriate for advertising on a medium with such a powerful reach into American homes. Many viewers believe that information regarding contraception is more appropriately discussed within a family environment and in the context of a family's ethical and religious values."
'A Real Conflict'
George Schweitzer, vice president of communications for CBS, agreed. "The whole AIDS issue raises a real conflict for us--and it's been getting a lot of attention internally," he said.
Still, Schweitzer said, "putting a 30-second ad for condoms on television is not going to solve this problem. It's going to take a lot more than that."
Betty Hudson, NBC's vice president for corporate and media relations, said that the network applauded the decision of its San Francisco affiliate to accept condom ads because KRON "has a better feel for the needs of its service area than we possibly could."
NBC's position, like that of ABC and CBS, is that condom advertising "is an issue best evaluated on a market-by-market basis" by local stations, rather than the network, she said.
"Many people don't want (contraceptive advertising) introduced without some warning," she said. "Viewers can decide not to watch because they can read the TV listings. But commercials are randomly scheduled."
Destroys Immune System
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that destroys the body's immune system, leaving it powerless against certain cancers and otherwise rare infections. It can also invade the central nervous system, causing severe neurological disorders. In addition to anal and vaginal sexual intercourse, it is also commonly transmitted through the sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles, and by mother to child during pregnancy.