You may not have noticed, but condoms are now sexy. Since June they have spruced up their image and started putting themselves about a bit. First Durex's kaleidoscopic pop video-style MTV campaign - coming to cinemas soon - showed a blind man having sex against an Indie soundtrack, its message: "Feeling is everything". Now toothbrushes, chairs and Mondrian "lovers" are having sex on Mates' new posters - just in time for national condom week. It's not advertising, Stuart Leach of Mates's ad agency, Knight Leach Delaney, says, it's art, and Covent Garden Tube station, covered from tip-to-toe in the images, is a gallery (if you believe that, you've no right to the title intelligent consumer).

Both campaigns are chic and cheerful, grabbing youth ... well, by the balls. But why the sea change now, after a decade of being told condoms were a necessary evil, endured for safety's sake and to keep Mrs Dawson happy? Cynics may note that the Health Education Authority has less money to spend on national ad campaigns - and if you've a near monopoly like Durex, that means losing a lot of free advertising. More simply, however, manufacturers feel Government ads have too many negative associations to "grow" the market further. Brand awareness, not Aids prevention, is the condom-makers' new battle ground, and ads that say lifestyle, not lifesaver, are their weapon.

Which is all very well, but it shouldn't obscure the fact that a decade of advertising has left consumers unable to distinguish their Elite from their Featherlite or their Ultra Safe. Customers confusion may not be as bad as in South Africa - where the most popular condom is twice as thick as most rivals but sells because it has a macho name, Rough Rider, and a pouting blonde on the pack - but British customers are none the less still fumbling in the dark.

Maria Brown is the marketing executive of Condomania, an independent wholesaler which sold over 2 million condoms last year. All Durex (80 per cent market share), Mates (16 per cent) and Jiffi sheaths (3 per cent) are, she points out, quality products, holding the British Standards Institution kitemark (actually, even two of these, Durex Gold and Mates Natural, failed the Consumers' Association's airburst test in 1993, but that's another story). Despite the BSI seal of approval, Brown is aghast at how customers are being treated. "The names of all the condom brands are absolute crap. They don't tell you anything. People need to talk about what's in the packet, not sexy advertising."

Ignorance, she says, is still the order of the day - even among health professionals. "We deal with health authorities, and sometimes even they can't tell the difference between products." And she gives the following - hypothetical - example; a young man goes into a health centre and says he doesn't like Durex Gossamer because he feels they are too constricting. So, the nurse gives him some Jiffis, which are essentially the same shape. When they too don't work, he decides condoms - and hence safe sex - are not for him. "I find that really quite scary," Brown says.

So what real choice does the consumer have? Durex manufactures Surefit - a smaller condom, though you won't see it called that on the pack. These, however, are only available from health centres. Otherwise, the Jiffi and Durex ranges are limited in one crucial way. You can select pina colada flavouring, spermicide or ribbing etc, you can dispense with a teat, but with the sole exception of Extra Safe - which may be extra sensitive but is not more or less safe than any other Durex line - all Durex and Jiffi condoms sold over the counter are straight-shafted sheaths.

Durex sells anatomically sculpted condoms of 104mm and 98mm circumference (Ultra Safe and Conform) as well as the flared - ie wider tipped - Natural, which shape-wise is roughly equivalent to Durex Extra Safe. What's more, Mates is now using magazine ads to spell out the benefits of each line. The age of the informed condom consumer may not be as far away as we thought. Prepare for Claire Rayner telling viewers: "It's just like any other condom, but with flares on."

As for which product feels best, it's almost impossible to find objective data. Sensation can vary wildly for many reasons - for example, the amount of vaginal fluid a woman secretes at different times of the month. And then there's the old saying: "Ask a centipede which leg it moves first, and it falls over." Ask a man to observe sexual abandon, and he swiftly loses his abandonment. It's good to know there are some things even market research can't penetrate.