Taking the party out of party hats: The high price of condom warnings

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One of the great joys of my life is marketing. To put it simply, I love watching companies desperately try to convince me that I can't live without this item or that item, that my entire life will be better if I use this product or that product.

Generally, marketers are pretty straight about their purpose: they want me to buy their product, and will make outrageous claims, pay for expensive celebrity endorsements, and spend a fortune on slick commercials in order to get my money. I, in return, generally ignore them, make my purchases based on price, tradition, and quality, and go on my merry way.

As much fun as it is to play this cat-and-mouse game, there's a time when even the savviest consumer has to acknowledge the value of truth in advertising. For me, that moment happened when I heard about the uproar over condom marketing. Here's how it played out:
Recently, the Federal government began discussing plans to rewrite condom labels. In addition to warning about condoms' potential ineffectiveness against genital warts and herpes, the labels would point out that condoms must be "used correctly every time." This seems like a reasonable, common sense message. More important, it seems like the kind of thing that should definitely needs to be conveyed: it's way too easy to imagine someone making the mistake of assuming that occasional condom usage would be enough to protect against disease, pregnancy, leprosy, nuclear war, etc.

Of course, as the old saying goes, common sense isn't all that common. Fred Wyand, media director of the American Social Health Association, stated that "If the messaging is fear based, it could turn people off using condoms." The idea, then, is that scary warnings would make people run from the dread ProphylAXIS of terror. After all, as ineffective as an unused condom is, it pales beside the total uselessness of a scary condom!

Having grown up in the first wave of the "Use a Condom or You'll Die of AIDS" generation, I find it hard to believe that there's anyone who doesn't know what condoms do, how they do it, and why they're important. However, assuming that these people exist, it seems that they would almost need a clear, uncompromised message. After all, if the basic mechanics of a raincoat are too much for a potential user to grasp, perhaps it's best to use short, clear words, explicit warnings, and precise sentences!

Beyond that, I've personally found that fear-based messaging is highly effective and, in the case of condoms, highly accurate. While I'm a huge fan of the creative dance of advertising and marketing, sometimes it's simply better to tell the truth; this seems like one of those times when the spin is in danger of obscuring the message.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. If he was in charge of condom marketing, condom packages would include pictures of people in the end-stages of syphilus.

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