'THE designer condom seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth,' explains Marianne Hahn, co-ordinator of National Condom Week. 'The condom has changed its image since the yuppie condomania of the Eighties. Most campaigners are focusing their efforts on teenagers now. They are seen as the high-risk group.'
So instead of black sheath holders tucked into Filofaxes, last week she was promoting rubbers-on-a-keyring, fluorescent packaging, 'Wicked Willie'-style posters and cheeky slogans with teen appeal. 'Safe sun sex fun]' announced the Lincoln health bus, making a detour to Skegness Pleasure Beach. Youth clubs in Reading invited members to make colourful condom sculptures. In Coventry, Kevin the condom, an outsize cartoon figure, advised football-loving lads: 'If you're going to score tonight, make sure it's in a sky blue condom]'
An air of cheap-and-cheerfulness clung to last week's National Condom Week - inevitable with a pitifully slim budget of pounds 8,000. Had it not been launched by Cynthia Payne this year, the campaign might have passed almost unnoticed. Another stroke of luck was the timely publication of a Which? report on condoms. Headlines reporting 'Nine out of 36 brands fail safety test]' have at least caught public attention. They might not enhance the image of the condom but, when government funds for safe sex education seem to be slowing to a trickle, any image is better than none.
Statistics on sexual behaviour suggest that the condom is now in danger of creeping back into pre-Aids limbo. The market is only up 25 per cent since the condomania days of 1986. Condom use with a new partner is a feeble six per cent. Last year saw a 32 per cent increase in Aids cases among young people via heterosexual sex. Teenage pregnancies are at a record level, as are the caseloads of STD clinics (six- fold increase since 1950).
The teenagers slumped inside my local McDonald's this evening don't seem too worried about safer sex. 'Condoms are for gays,' declares grunge-tattered Dean, aged 17. Two girls squashed in next to him snort with giggles. Their long crimped hair swings across their faces to cover their confusion. Would either of them carry condoms in their handbags? Pauline, 16, says no. 'Boys think you're a slag,' she explains. 'Boys wouldn't wear one anyway,' adds 15-year-old Marcia.
Don't they see any funky new condom ads aimed in their direction? Aren't they even slightly exciting? Marcia thinks hard. 'We get a bit at school, but you get used to it,' she says. Pauline does better. 'I like the one where that woman in a shower cap is testing them on a load of . . .' '. . . metal willies,' interrupts Dean helpfully. 'And the old bloke who still does it with a used one he's got in a box. It's a good laugh anyway. But I wouldn't buy one.' Apart from these offerings from the Health Education Authority, they can't recall noticing any condom ads.
What is the manufacturer of Durex, our leading condom company, doing to lighten their darkness? 'At the moment we are concentrating on educating young people,' says Jean Smith, director of marketing. 'We have promotions inside young women's magazines, we sponsor a pop festival, there is sport and the Durex hot air balloon.'
What if young people still aren't impressed? 'We are still considering TV ads like we tried in 1987,' she insists. Some cynics might say that, with 80 per cent of the UK market share and huge scope in Asia and China, Durex simply doesn't need to bother with adventurous and expensive ads.
Richard Hynter, managing director of advertising agency Still Price Lintas, is underwhelmed by this policy. SPL launched Mates condoms in a blaze of publicity six years ago, and he thinks the same sort of energy is needed again now. He'd like to see a total image revamp, targeting condoms not just at teens but also at twenty-and thirtysomethings who have been allowed to grow complacent (54 per cent of a recent Elle magazine survey felt it couldn't happen to them). 'It's the educated Volvo drivers who are now the neglected market,' he says.
Marianne Hahn agrees. 'They use condoms at first with a new partner, but stop after a few weeks or months. They're ignoring the climbing rates of divorce and infidelity. We need to get to them as well.'
Back on the street, Dean, Marcia and Pauline are wheeling along, arm in arm. They like the idea of Richard Hynter's Volvo drivers campaign. Rich people should be made to wear condoms too.
'They think we're the ones who get Aids,' complains Dean, 'whereas they are the ones who put it about more than us.' 'And we're cleaner,' says Pauline, toying with a crucifix on a leather thong. 'We never go with dirty poxy boys anyway,' Marcia sniggers. 'You do,' she says, nudging Pauline heavily. Pauline ignores her.
Has any one of them heard of National Condom Week? No. 'Do you get free ones?' asks Dean. Not that they have any time to spare tonight. They're much too busy trying to find a film they haven't seen yet. Condoms can wait, having fun can't.
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