The condom ad that doesn’t sell safe sex

Just to bookend my post about the lame new safe sex ad from THT that somehow fails to sell condoms, here’s a condom ad from Ansell that doesn’t sell safe sex.

Niall over at Dangerous Minds considers this a terrible failure; I’m not so sure.  Ansell are in the business of selling their condoms, not safe sex generically, and their strategy here is differentiating SKYN condoms from all the others.  It’s sex-positive and it’s honest: it says no more than what most condom users feel about them.

Unlike the THT ad this one makes an explicit statement about benefit: they’re different, ‘this changes everything’, and of course there’s the name SKYN (‘skin’).  If someone else who hates condoms sees this ad, tries the product and likes it, there’s your safe sex outcome.

And while I’m not wild about the sexy half-naked woman making ‘come hither’ eyes, I’m pretty damn sure this ad is targeted at men, who still (in this century!) tend to buy condoms.   And at least it’s showing a woman who’s definite about what she likes and dislikes.  Just… what is she lying on!?  Is that bedspread denim?

Just one teensy-weensy little irony here… SKYN condoms are the worst condoms I have ever used.  They’re the only condoms I have ever found actually painful.  I get that for the receptive partner all condoms can dry out and get grippy and become uncomfortable/painful.  The trick is to apply reapply a good water-based lube before you feel any discomfort.

BUT – and here’s where it gets weird – I was the penetrative partner.  We used them several times, and I suspect the thinness of the synthetic latex enables it to fold, causing crinkles that pinch the skin.

At the time, we were heading towards a relationship but it was still casual and we hadn’t been mutually tested yet, and the sheer discomfort contributed to some occasions of unprotected sex — only the second time in my life I have done that.  But that’s a personal experience and your mileage (inchage?) may vary.

New THT ad takes tired old approach

Britain’s largest HIV organisation, Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), has just launched a new safe sex campaign advertisement, misleadingly titled “Condom Moment”:

New it may be, but it feels awfully familiar.  For reasons I’ll explain, as a piece of marketing it makes literally no sense, but as a safe sex advertisement, it’s totally recognisable.  That’s interesting in itself: it suggests the safe sex campaign has become a genre.  Like harrried-mum-with-air-freshener and car-on-a-winding-road-with-Sting-or-Enya clips.  No longer trying to persuade anyone of anything, you’re just taking up time before you shove your logo in front of the audience to maintain brand recognition.

That sucks because it seriously constrains your options for future innovation.  It’s like the joke about two old men who’ve been fishing together for so long they have numbered their jokes.  “No. 45! — and they both fall about.  A new guy tries it on, “no. 92!” and they scratch their heads: “Are you sure you’re telling it right?”

As marketing this piece makes no sense because it’s a condom ad that fails to sell condoms.  It starts with couples getting frisky in unusual places, then presents a slow-motion montage of grim faces, frowning, anxious, fearful, awkward, pulled out of the moment by a rising crescendo of worried whispered thoughts.  As a fairly think-y person, this resonated with me; it often takes me a while to shut down my brain and just get in the moment.  But then the ad ends and coloured text appears, telling the viewer to use condoms.  And that’s not an ending, it’s a Powerpoint slide.  Whatever happened to ‘show, don’t tell’?

The ad could have shown one of the partners whipping out a condom and the other showing visible relief and redoubled enthusiasm as their worries evaporate and they get back into the moment.  You know, actually marketing the product, i.e. condoms, and the benefit, worry-free sex.  Instead, they stuck to the genre of the safe sex PSA, concluding with an imperative textual instruction.  At which point I was literally shouting at my screen and calling for the campaign manager’s head… I really need to dial back my coffee intake.

In the comments, someone objected to the stereotype of gay men getting it on in a toilet, and THT made a very telling remark in reply:

We agree it would have been fantastic to have more couples in different locations, but – with a limited budget and tight schedule – we understand why the team who donated the clip had to focus on the most visually compelling shots.

As a social marketer this rang some Big Ben-sized alarm bells for me.  ‘Donated’ is not a good word in this context.  It’s hard enough getting an agency you’ve commissioned to stick to the brief, as I have personally and recently experienced, but it’s even trickier when the agency is donating the work.  You need a lot of clarity in the roles each party will play in co-constructing the message.

In this film, there is some evidence of front-end input of focus group or interview findings on the reasons people give for not using condoms, but it flubs the ‘product P’ — one of the most basic elements of the marketing mix.  It looks like the film maker was either briefed badly or didn’t take the brief, but it ends with the THT logo and so they’re ultimately responsible for it.

The mini horror movie before bedtime

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Grim Reaper ad first going to air, and I have a guest post at Croakey reflecting on its legacy.  For people working in the HIV sector, hating on the campaign (and its creator, S-aye-aye-mon Reynolds) is almost mandatory.  Like a lot of people, though, if I’m honest, I feel a certain nostalgic fondness for the ad itself, so I wanted to keep it reasonably even-handed while still acknowledging its downsides — as my colleague puts it, hiding the beetroot in the chocolate cake.*

Read the full post here

* Not a sexual metaphor (see recipe).

Rising infections in gay men under 30

If current rates continue in 2009, new cases of HIV in gay men under 30 will be double their number in 2007. That goes against the overall trend for gay men in Victoria, which levelled off in 2008.

I have expressed concern in a couple of interviews about the lack of campaigns targeting gay men under thirty — I think the last one was in the nineties. That gets taken as an attack on the current Victorian AIDS Council campaign using porn images, but I actually think the plateau in overall infection rates shows the current mix of campaigns is doing good.

I also acknowledge the Victorian Government Department of Health for funding and coordinating a reinvigoration of our state’s HIV response.

While I think the explicit sexual imagery matches the sexual confidence and sophistication of men in their thirties and above, it doesn’t work as well with younger men, who are generally less confident, more conservative, and dealing with different issues, like coming out and the gay scene.

Not invariably, but generally.

That’s not just my opinion: it shows up in the social research. Garrett Prestage from the National Centre in HIV Clinical and Epidemiological Research has reported that while they have around the same total number of sexual partners as men in older age brackets, younger men tend to organise their sex lives differently, practicing “serial monogamy” (long strings of short, supposedly monogamous relationships).

Campaigns targeting young gay men need to include relationships and the scene as themes, and they need to address prevention issues relevant to guys in relationships.

Older men might remember the campaign advising men in relationships to close out the HIV test “window period” before they stopped using condoms with each other, but there hasn’t been a campaign about that since the nineties; how is a 23yo guy supposed to know that?

I feel quite uncomfortable raising the alarm about rising infection rates, because I don’t think infection rates should be the focus of campaign strategy in the first place.

The cultural processes that influence sexual behaviour are like a P&O cruise liner: they take a long time to stop. So by the time infection rates begin to rise, you’ve got a big job ahead of you, just trying to turn them around; and you are no longer doing prevention, only damage control.

In their report on The Contemporary Context of HIV Infection in Victoria, researchers Sean Slavin and Marian Pitts quote one young newly HIV-positive man saying:

Then I had my risk re-evaluation. I think a lot of people have it in
their early twenties. As a teenager I was really a safe sex fundamentalist. I redrew my risk profile a bit and started taking more mid-level risks, which were fine by themselves. They probably wouldn’t have caused me to convert. Then I started to top bareback. (p17)

Many of the attitudes our campaigns target in men aged 30 plus were formed in the intense sexual and social learning process men undergo in their twenties. It’s just good sense to invest in campaign work specifically targeting gay men under 30. I am only forced to make a fuss about the infection rate because that good sense has not yet been acknowledged.

Rattling bones

Two great moments took place in 1996. One was the famous Protease Moment, when scientists electrified the Vancouver AIDS Conference with the announcement of the first truly-effective HIV treatment protocol, using a combination of 3+ meds including a protease inhibitor. The other was an Australian social researcher, Gary Dowsett, standing up at the same conference saying the young men in his research study were post-AIDS. They had grown up and come out and learned how to have sex with HIV always in the background; it was nothing new, not a crisis, and didn’t form the centre of their gay existence.

One man in the audience was the gay writer Eric Rofes, and he got the significance of both moments immediately. Within two years Rofes had written and published one of the great classics, Dry Bones Breathe (Haworth, 1998). He castigates “AIDS Inc” for its insistent reliance upon a crisis mentality, and the failure of the “brain trust” to respond to those two great moments. At an AIDS org in SF, he sees all the classics* sitting on a bookshelf, but a staffer tells him nobody there has any time to read them. That sounds familiar, I thought, having worked for the AIDS council in my home state at a time when HIV infection rates were rising.

I had coffee on Friday with a colleague from a PLWHA org in another state who’s working on a project about what sector shorthand calls ‘interesting times’ – a constellation of trends including the normalisation of gay, the declining relevance of community, increasing UAI and serosorting, criminalisation, public health, the Internet, and so forth. It calls for an open mind about how all of these things interact in the current moment, but crisis thinking admits no subtlety and takes no prisoners; at some point in the past 11 years of the culture wars, advocacy became a blood sport.

By “crisis thinking” I don’t mean we’re all still running around waving our hands in the air, although I have seen that happen. I mean the strategic deployment of outrage in response to anyone who questions the norms underpinning the community-based response to HIV. The ever-percipient Rofes called the institutional actors on the conservative moral underpinnings of their insistence on the need for gay men to take personal responsibility for the epidemic, pointing to its continuity with a contemporary moral panic about sex.

That panic was still going strong eight years later, when I made it the focus of a 2006 conference paper on “Barebacking and Bugchasing: Images in a Jurisprudence of Desire”. Without question it underlies much of the argument for gay marriage and the criminalisation of HIV transmission. The problem for the HIV sector in Australia (and elsewhere) is that a full decade later most of our key decision-makers are still no closer to understanding the points Rofes made in 1998 and Dowsett made even earlier.