A pack of three without the shame: Buying condoms makes people nervous and awkward. Jane Austin looks at how more imaginative packaging might help to conquer embarrassment in the chemist's

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YOU sidle into the chemist's and look for them among the corn plasters and cold remedies. Eventually you spot them, but they are directly in front of an assistant. Furtively, you glance over your shoulder and scan the available packs. Deciding in record time that you are not a red sports car, drippy couple, yacht or bird person, you opt for the sunset and hurry out of the shop. Later, you discover you have bought three gold-coloured, extra long condoms. Didn't want gold? Extra long not your size? Never mind, at least you managed to buy the damn things.

According to research, condoms have the shortest point of purchase time of all products in the UK. Although surveys show that 90 per cent of people know they protect against HIV, and consequently save lives, the benefits of these little pieces of rubber are still being ignored by some people. Lynne Walsh, of the Health Education Authority, says: 'Research shows that 25 per cent of people are still embarrassed about buying condoms - usually women.'

The HEA is running a campaign in the women's press and youth magazines underlining the dangers of unprotected sex, and next Monday is the start of National Condom Week, run by the British Wellness Council, aimed at protecting against sexually transmitted diseases and reducing unwanted pregnancies, which are at record levels among girls under 16.

Undoubtedly, the availability of condoms has improved dramatically since the days when a visit to the barber's ended with the question: 'Anything for the weekend, Sir?' Johnson & Johnson, the distributor of Mates, says that condom sales have risen by 50 per cent since 1985 and that the UK market is worth pounds 47m annually. The average user will buy 104 condoms a year, and Frost & Sullivan, a market research company, estimates that the market will grow by a further 25 per cent during the next five years.

But does the way condoms are packaged and marketed attract purchasers and convey the right choice for their sexual needs, or does it perpetuate sexual coyness and confuse us about the differences between the contents? Manufacturers claim their packaging works, but there are designers, doctors and retailers who believe that the dominance of bland packets on chemists' shelves is old-fashioned and not addressing issues.

According to the makers, packaging design and marketing decisions are led by market research into the attitudes of social groups. If packaging is pushed too far, the argument goes, there is a danger that it will alienate certain consumer groups, losing the more sensitive customer.

Penny Blackburn is senior product manager of LRC Products, the maker of Durex, which has been manufacturing condoms for 60 years. She claims that with 80 per cent of the market share, Durex must have the right image. LRC's marketing department has no design policy as such, but recently it spent 'several hundreds of thousands of pounds' on a product range overhaul.

'The recent designs are somewhat piecemeal,' says Ms Blackburn, 'but there is a lot of heritage associated with the brands, so we have to be very careful about how far we go.'

Martin Foreman, the founder of Condomania, a specialist shop in Soho that stocks more than 70 brands from around the world, challenges Ms Blackburn's view. He sees that when placed next to Germany's Billy Boy and the US brand Wet 'n' Wild, British condom packaging is 'dull and unimaginative'.

'The designs of Mates and the Durex brands echo a time when condoms were thought of as not very respectable,' he says. 'It is important that they are given a positive image and promoted as an essential item. For example, everyone uses shampoo to wash their hair, so of course you use a condom when you have sex.'

Tim Black of Marie Stopes International, which has launched condom campaigns in India, Uganda and Ethiopia, also believes that Britain lags behind other countries in terms of adventurous packaging. 'Here they are dull and ethical,' he says. 'It's as if people in advertising think 'Condoms - that means white coats and stethoscopes.'. In Japan condoms come in gift-wrapped selection boxes like chocolates and in Asia there is a series that shows sexy women.'

In an attempt to shake off the dull and under-the-counter image of condoms, Creative Review magazine set a brief to seven designers to create new ranges of packaging and point-of-sale material. The designs included a series promoting the idea of 'brands that reflect your personality'; a brand called 'Loving Life', and a graphic point-of-sale board simply saying, 'Let's xxxx. Use a condom.'

'For perceptions to change,' says Shaun Westgate, a designer at Sampson Tyrrell, which produced the board, 'a cultural shift is required that makes the product synonymous with sex.'

However, solutions devised by the designers who took up this brief did not impress Ms Blackburn. 'Some people would be turned off by them, and therefore it would be a very dangerous route for us to take.'

The condom market is undoubtedly very conservative. The main difficulty appears to lie in appeasing the guardians of morality while also appealing to the public. 'The use of the product is so absurd and so full of male insecurities,' says George Peters, of Brimacombe & Co, the group that designed the packaging for Assure, Arouser, Gold, Extra Strong, Extra Safe and Elite brands for Durex. 'Adults are awkward in their response to condoms. I'm not sure why, but our Durex images obviously do work, somehow.'

Mr Peters is against any radical change in Durex's designs. 'There should never be a revolution in a brand's identity. Our work for Durex has been to evolve the brand further.'

Jiffi condoms achieved youth-market appeal through their upbeat, colourful packaging, based on T-shirts with such slogans as 'Real men come in a Jiffi'. But Jiffi failed to increase its market share beyond 10 per cent, and its manufacturer, Duravand, has now closed down. A spokesperson admitted that one of Jiffi's problems was that 'the packaging design was too fun and fashionable. It wasn't serious or clinical enough.'

The brand has been sold to Sime Healthcare, which will relaunch it this month as a more serious brand, emphasising quality and reliability.

Condoms come in many shapes, sizes and strengths, but another criticism of packaging is that it fails to communicate suitability for different sexual needs. Jane Mezzone, who works for the Praed Street Project, an organisation that provides access to health care for women working in sex industries, says, 'They want a condom that isn't going to break, and the predominantly coy packaging that exists generally does not address these issues.'

She also has reservations about jazzing up designs. 'Pretty packaging is the last thing working women think about.'

According to Ms Mezzone, colourful and vividly designed packaging says 'fun' to women, which is not what they look for in a condom.

Lynne Walsh suggests that people who want strong condoms make sure they have been properly tested by looking for the kite mark. The authority would also like to see clear instructions with each packet, similar to those for tampons, for example. 'The failure rate happens because they aren't used properly. Many young men simply don't know how to put them on, or they get torn by a fingernail,' she says.

Her view is echoed by Judi Green, a director of the design consultancy the Green House, which has designed packaging for Marks & Spencer, and produced the 'Loving Life' range for the Creative Review project. 'We believe that existing sub-brands, such as Featherlite and Gossamer, do not clearly present their distinct benefits and so confuse the consumer instead of steering him/her to the relevant image. 'Loving Life' makes Durex the hero, using vibrant, emotive images coupled with bold product benefit descriptors to segment the range.'

If designers and manufacturers disagree about packaging, the positioning of condoms in shops and the way they are displayed also produce disagreement. Penny Blackburn says that LRC 'is happy with its present system', but claims no responsibility for the positioning of the products within stores. That decision is up to the retailers. Two years ago, Boots decided to move condoms from the pharmacy counter to self-select stands. Richard Colchester, marketing services manager for Boots Healthcare, says: 'Research shows that people prefer the anonymity of self-select, rather than open displays on the pharmacy counter.'

Metropolis '88, which designs packaging for BHS, believes that the positioning of condoms in shops does not help. 'Condoms are usually located at the back of the store,' says Jackie Blake, a designer, 'and are somewhat clinical and uninspired. The packaging is completely at odds with the sentiments of love-making.'

Until designers and manufacturers agree, it seems there are still going to be those shy customers who, in order to get the purchase over with as quickly as possible, will end up leaving with the first packet they can pick up.

The author is Staff Writer on 'Creative Review' magazine.

(Photographs omitted)

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