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Contraceptives Get Good Reception on Prime Time


Prime-time television, once off-limits to pitches for condoms and other birth control products, is becoming fertile ground for contraceptive ads.

A handful of advertisers, including a unit of health-care giant Johnson & Johnson, have aired birth control ads in local TV markets around the country. And viewers are receptive to the messages, in sharp contrast to the protests that accompanied late-night condom ads a decade ago.

Advertisers say the steady ratcheting of sexual content on TV, from Calvin Klein ads to "Melrose Place" and Monica Lewinsky's prime-time tell-all with Barbara Walters, has desensitized consumers to messages about birth control, which seem tame by comparison. In 60-second ads from J&J's Ortho-McNeil division, fresh-scrubbed women portray newlyweds considering contraceptive options.

So far, the ads have aired only on local stations and cable because the three biggest broadcast networks still refuse to accept birth control spots for national broadcast. But CBS says it is reviewing its policy.

"It's a reflection of how society has changed in its willingness to allow images in advertising to go down some incredibly provocative and in some cases pornographic paths," said Diane Cook-Tench, director of the Adcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University. "So an ad for a birth control pill certainly doesn't seem controversial and could seem like it's in so much better taste than a lot of other things that we see."

The ads are part of a stepped-up effort by marketers to reach younger women as loyal baby boomers age beyond their child-bearing years. Although the pill remains the dominant prescription contraceptive, younger women increasingly are choosing drugs considered more convenient with fewer side effects.

Ortho's ads, aimed at women between ages 18 and 34, say Ortho Tri-Cyclen offers the added benefit of clearing up problem skin--a message likely to resonate with younger women. Indeed, Planned Parenthood Los Angeles reports an increase in women asking about Ortho Tri-Cyclen, though it doesn't know for sure if the ads are responsible. Commercials have been airing on KNBC-TV and KTTV-TV in Los Angeles since December.

KNBC says it didn't think twice about accepting the ad and hasn't received any complaints about its contents.

"The key point is that the FDA has made it possible for prescription drug ads to run on TV," said Cathy Jacquemin, vice president of sales at KNBC, which has aired the ad during "Frasier." "Our policy is to evaluate each situation on case-by-case basis. We felt the ad was tastefully executed, highly effective at delivering its message and appropriate to air."

Pharmacia & Upjohn pioneered TV advertising of prescription contraceptives with a 1997 campaign for the injectable Depo Provera after the government loosened decades-old restrictions on drug advertising. Careful to avoid controversy, the documentary-style commercials, in which women at family gatherings discuss plans for having children, aired in only 11 markets and mostly after 10 p.m. Company representative Daniel Watts said the campaign, which ended last year, resulted in "significant gains and sales for the product relative to the core markets"--and nary a murmur of protest.

Last summer, a public service campaign on emergency contraception aired in Los Angeles and five other major cities, also drawing little protest. The campaign included prime-time ads in Seattle and Philadelphia. Emergency contraception involves a high dose of birth control pills that may prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours after sex.

"I think the lesson learned there was an important one: The sky did not fall in," said James Trussell, director of the Office of Population Research, which helped craft the spots. "Networks have been saying for years that contraceptive ads would offend their audience, but it didn't offend them."

Just 10 years ago AIDS activists were rebuffed when they approached Los Angeles affiliates and MTV with a condom ad that showed a man and a woman on a bed. The ad used the word "rubber" because broadcast executives were squeamish about using the word "condom" on the air.

Frustrated condom makers then decided to kill their efforts to advertise on TV altogether, saying it was not cost-effective to market their products through ads on affiliates in only a few cities.

While some activist groups continue to have reservations about contraceptive advertising, they no longer openly oppose it. The Concerned Women of America, among the most vocal objectors to condom commercials, now limits its disapproval to ads that target unmarried women or promote drugs or methods that prevent implantation. In 1990, the group led a petition drive against condom commercials.

Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family also doesn't object to contraceptive ads on TV--even though they may cause children to ask their parents about birth control earlier than they normally would, said Carrie Gordon, a policy analyst for the group.

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