Before It’s Too Late, produced for Ansell Inc. by Tom Eppley of Red Bank, N.J.
One Night Stand, Two Weeks Later, produced for Ansell Inc. by Stu Pollard of Los Angeles.
Forget Me Not, produced for Ansell Inc. by Rick Starbuck of Santa Barbara, Calif.
Each year, Ansell Inc., the makers of LifeStyles condoms, conducts a condom ad contest that anyone can enter–PR firm or individual, amateur or professional. Then the company broadcasts the winners as its television advertising campaign, or tries to air the ads themselves. MTV and the Comedy Channel routinely run the spots, but most network affiliates outside three markets (Boston, Seattle, and Chico, Calif.) have refused so far to show them.
Under federal law, broadcasters can’t censor ads for political candidates, but everything else–from soap to the nuttiest issue ad campaign–must meet the stations’ amorphous standards of accuracy and good taste. So most of the ads you see on television, believe it or not, are certified as true, defensible, and tasteful. Presumably the condom ads aren’t false–the product does work; they fail on grounds of taste.
This year’s first-prize winner, Before It’s Too Late, was created by a truck driver whose hobby is computer animation. A talking skeleton holding a LifeStyles condom in bony fingers confides that he never used a condom because he was “too embarrassed to ask for them from behind the counter,” and because he’d “feel awkward stopping in the middle of everything just to put this on.” He continues: “But then lately, I don’t feel a thing.”
Even before the advent of AIDS, sex was equated with death. Before It’s Too Late updates and exploits this cultural assumption, letting the viewer play with the horror of sex and death without really confronting it. The words aren’t explicit, but the message is: “Use a condom, and you won’t die.”
“Don’t be a BoneHead,” puns the chyron at the end of the spot, humorously encouraging its target market to reach for a condom. It conveys the sense that LifeStyles condoms must be a reliable product, maybe even the best of condoms, because its makers care enough about your health to advertise it that way. We share your fear, the ad implies. Trust us to protect you from it.
The second-place ad–One Night Stand, Two Weeks Later–evokes a 1940s black-and-white Hollywood melodrama about the wages of illicit love. Our heroine punishes herself because she yielded to temptation, a temptation that was probably more alluring in the early 1980s than it is today. She meets her “out of town” guy and takes him back to her apartment. “I woke up the next morning and he was gone,” she says, her voice cracking with emotion. “I spent the last two weeks worrying that I might be pregnant, or I might have”–her voice trails off–“I don’t even want to think about it.”
The spot is aimed at the woman, the secondary consumer of condoms, reminding her that an alternative to “no” is “wait a minute,” followed by a quick dip into her nightstand drawer for a rubber.
Speaking of drawers: The third-place finisher, Forget Me Not, features an animated condom in a drawer. Lonely and anxious to be used, the condom grows so weary of the wait that he throws away his watch: Either the condom’s owner is abstinent, or he’s careless. Sad organ music is suddenly replaced by an upbeat, jazzy score: The owner opens the drawer and takes the package. Virtually without narration, the spot ends with a row of condom packages morphing into the name of the product.
This spot is more likely to raise the hackles of the pressure groups than some of the others. For one, the product–and all that it connotes–is visible. And the computer animation and cheerful music suggest that sex is a fun consumable. The spot does leave the viewer wondering about the rest of the story, and what tale the condom could tell.
What’s next? A LifeStyles ad for extra-large condoms? Wouldn’t that move condoms! Maybe it would. Since the 1994 debut of the company’s television ad campaign, LifeStyles has become the fastest growing brand.