American television history of sorts took place on Fox Broadcasting Co. on Sunday night when the maverick network brushed aside a long-held taboo by nationally broadcasting a condom commercial.
The 15-second spot for Trojan brand condoms aired during the off-beat teen show "Herman's Head." It was viewed by about 7 million households nationally--and 450,000 locally.
The ad features a close-up shot of a young redheaded man who says, "I'm a nice guy and go out with nice girls. But these days, some pretty terrible things are happening to some really nice people." A box of condoms is displayed as an announcer says, "Trojan latex condoms: To reduce the risk." The spot does not specifically mention acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Behind this seemingly simple ad was a frantic scramble by the nation's condom makers. This breakneck contest wasn't to make the cheapest--or safest--condom. It was a mad dash to be first to air ads nationally on network TV. Until now, none of the major networks have permitted it.
Because the Trojan ad appeared first, it is certain to get a tremendous amount of free air play on network news shows. And marketing experts say whichever brand that is the first to get its name embedded in the public's mind as "safe" might also see sales jump.
Trojan, made by Carter-Wallace, is by far the largest-selling brand of condom--with a market share in excess of 50%. "We'd like to see every network allow us to advertise," said Mark Klein, vice president at Carter-Wallace. He declined to comment on the Trojan TV ad.
"If my client owned half the market, I'd race to be first," said Farida Fotouhi, president of the Los Angeles agency Fotouhi Alonso Advertising. "The guy with the largest brand share always stands to gain the most from category growth."
Indeed, "every company tried to be first," said Phyliss Barber, director of regulatory affairs at London International Holdings, parent company to Schmid Laboratories, makers of the Sheik and Ramses condom brands.
But some ad executives warn that being first could backfire. "To rush into advertising could be seen as an attempt to capitalize on a very sad situation," said Rich Edler, managing director of the Los Angeles office of Foote, Cone & Belding.
Last week--shortly after Magic Johnson revealed that he has the AIDS virus--Fox Broadcasting said it would begin to accept condom ads that dealt with the control of sexually transmitted diseases. Since then, both CBS and NBC indicated that they will reconsider their policies.
Some critics say the networks are hypocritical to reject condom ads while accepting ads for contraceptive sponges. But the networks say condom ads are more offensive to viewers.
Donald E. Wildmon, president of the conservative religious group American Family Assn., expressed outrage at Fox. "If Fox really cared about people, it would air public service announcements that said the only safe sex is no sex until you are married," he said.
But Fox has received no viewer complaints about the ad since Sunday, said spokeswoman Andi Sporkin. She said the condom ad featured "an important message."
Will there now be a flood of condom ads on TV? "Maybe something more like a flurry," said Ken Koenig, president of Koenig & Associates, the Shrewsbury, N.J., agency that creates ads for Ansell-Americas, which makes the Lifestyle brand condom.
The condom industry spent less than $10 million in advertising last year--about one-tenth of what Wendy's spent to advertise its hamburgers. But industry executives say that amount could quadruple if condom makers get heavily into TV advertising.
Since the mid-1980s, the condom makers have only been able to place TV commercials on some cable and independent TV stations. MTV has accepted condom TV spots for several years. Some of these same spots are the ones the condom makers hope the networks will air.
Among them is one that New York adman Jerry Della Femina created in 1986, featuring a woman who pointedly states, "I enjoy sex, but I'm not ready to die for it." That ad, for Lifestyles brand, was rejected by all the networks at the time. Now Della Femina says he is "bitter" about the networks waiting so long. "If they had only accepted condom ads back then, you have to wonder how many lives would have been changed."
That same spot was shipped to Fox last week, where it is now being reviewed for possible airing. "Ultimately," said Marie Kraemer, product manager for Lifestyles, "the best way to reach consumers is with TV advertising."
That is also the thinking at Schmid Laboratories, which next month plans to begin marketing a new brand targeted at teen-agers, Safe Play. The condoms will be sold in a flip-top box that looks like a package of cigarettes. Schmid officials say it was their discussions last month with Fox Chairman Barry Diller that persuaded the network to reconsider its policy.
"We've creaked the door open," said C. Jay Key, whose specialty marketing firm Key Concepts Inc. is helping market the new brand. "Thanks to Magic Johnson being so honest and so open, we're dealing in a new world and a different environment."