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Time for condom brands to review their storytelling

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MUMBAI: Ironically, when it comes to advertisements, condom players don’t know how to play it safe. Condom ads have been at the centre of numerous controversies owing to the erotic nature of the storytelling. Several governments have taken a strong stand against sleazy ads.

Condom advertising in the US has been a much-debated topic for the longest time. At first, advertisements for condoms were mostly limited to men's magazines such as Penthouse. The first television ad, on the California station KNTV, aired in 1975 but was quickly pulled off after it provoked the ire of people. Years later, the first condom commercial on US television aired in 1991.

Condoms have been available in India since the 1940s but the first mass-distributed condom was introduced in 1963 under the name of Kamaraj (pseudonym of Indian cupid Kamadeva) but K Kamaraj was then the president of the ruling party, Indian National Congress. Hence, a new name for the condom was chosen: Nirodh that means protection in Hindi.

In 1952, the Government of India established the first national family-planning programme in the world. At this time, condoms were privately manufactured and sold at high prices. Only the rich could afford the price of 25 paise even though population growth rate was the highest amongst the lower-income groups. In the late 1980s, several TV commercials were developed to create awareness about Nirodh. But the message from these advertisements was not clear about what a condom was, who used it, where would one get it or that it was distributed free of cost.

It was in 1991 that KamaSutra condoms seduced viewers with erotic images of Bollywood actors, linking condoms to pleasure for the first time. Today, you have plenty of condom brands but all of them rely on the same creative–sensual and explicit scenes. Durex, Manforce, Playgard, Skore and others have resorted to the same storytelling through the years.

They have not wavered from using the ‘sex sells’ motto to grab eyeballs. The Glitch co-founder and content chief Varun Duggirala thinks that the audience has matured but is still being considered as naive.

It was in December 2017 when the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) decided to ban condom advertisements on television between 6 am to 10 pm. The move was directed after the Advertising Standards Council of India (Asci) approached the MIB for withdrawing condom ads that were telecast during prime time or ‘family-viewing time’. The council was reacting to complaints regarding the kind of content condom brands showed in ads, which was not necessarily suitable for kids and teenagers. Asci, in its letter to the ministry, specifically stated that ads that were explicit and vulgar in nature should be aired only between 10 pm and 6 am.

Havas India CEO Nirmalya Sen thinks that in India, the category has, to an extent, called the recent ban upon itself with mindless use of sex to sell condoms. He adds that this ban, in fact, could well be the catalyst the brands in the category need to act responsibly and be creative.

Ajay Rawal, general manager of marketing for JK Ansell, maker of KamaSutra sexual wellness products, believes brands need to change their communication now and move away from using erotic ads. “Things have changed drastically in the last decade and the option to view eroticism is now easily available online. Millennials today are not interested in seeing this kind of content and want to see a creative that is relatable, realistic and memorable for them,” he adds.

Interestingly, condom ads on digital are more creative than the TV ones – skewed to showing their use and benefits.

Condom makers don’t use these ads on TV because of the cost involved in buying ad slots where they don’t want to risk their necks.

Rawal notes that the advertising spends in the condom category are pithy compared to the giant FMCG category. “If a condom brand wants to create a new communication that does not have eroticism and sexual overdose to it, it has to be memorable and a lot of effort needs to be put in creating resonating, real and relatable stories,” he adds.

While stating that India is still a conservative country when it comes down to sex, Dentsu One president Harjot Singh Narang mentions that companies tend to resort to the easiest part of storytelling—to have lots of sex without any fear—which is why most condom ads show romanticising situations on air. “Internationally, brands have moved over sexuality in ads and are talking about where it actually fits in the consumer’s life. In India, Durex is taking that route but we still have a long way to go,” he says.

Historically, most condom purchases were made by men and that’s why the focus has predominantly been on the male audience. But since using contraception is essentially a woman’s call, maybe there is a need for change in communication and have more female protagonists in ads.

While raising a point that why condom advertising in India stops at soft porn, Narang concludes that it is time for brands to build deeper relationships with consumers by creating engaging content as it is the need of the hour.

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