Friday, December 20, 2013

What are they selling?

If you live on a bus route that feeds a university campus you get to see a lot of ads about condoms:

These ads don't change anybody's minds about anything. They never have and this is well-established. Anti-smoking ads did nothing to reduce the number of smokers, pro-fitness ads do not increase the number of people who exercise, anti-racism ads don't reduce hatred and so forth. Perhaps most notoriously, the very same people who promote rape awareness ads insist that there is a ever worsening rape culture on university campuses which, if true, means their own campaigns have been a failure.

Why run the ads then?

Before I answer that, let's talk about Porsche. Or the Toronto Maple Leafs. What those two vendors have in common is that they have no trouble at all selling their product. Porsche and the Leafs always sell out. So why advertize?

The answer is that Porsche advertisements are not aimed at people who want a car but don't know which kind. They are aimed at people who already want or already have a Porsche. The ads exist to validate the desires that people already have. Thousands, possibly millions, of young men who have or want a Porsche use the ads to convince themselves that they are right to keep on wanting a Porsche.

Condoms, however, are more like the Leafs: they suck. Perhaps a bad word choice but crude as this is, the problem is that nobody, but nobody likes condoms. Don't take my word for it, trust Bill Gates:
The one major drawback to more universal use of male condoms is the lack of perceived incentive for consistent use. The primary drawback from the male perspective is that condoms decrease pleasure as compared to no condom, creating a trade-off that many men find unacceptable, particularly given that the decisions about use must be made just prior to intercourse. Is it possible to develop a product without this stigma, or better, one that is felt to enhance pleasure?
By the way, notice who gets left out here? That's right, women!  But women have no problem with condoms, you say. Actually, the best research shows that they dislike the things at least as much as men do. (Notice that the ad is actually aimed at women. The people behind these campaigns may not admit certain facts but they do know about them.)

Anyway, to get back to the central thread, you'll notice from the text I cited above that the marketing problem for condoms is the same as it is for Porsches or the Leafs: it's easy to get people to desire these things; it isn't so easy to get them to act on those desires. Lots of men want Porsches but that is one hell of a lot of money for what is really just a toy. The Leafs, they always, but always, manage to lose in the end; they're so bad they should move to Cleveland. And everybody approves of condoms to reduce the risk of disease but ... well, that's another problem.

Did you notice that they can't quite bring themselves to say it? That entire paragraph is full of evasions: "the lack of perceived incentive ... from the male perspective is that condoms decrease pleasure ... develop a product without this stigma". They won't come out and say what everyone who has ever used one of these things knows to be true: that they do reduce pleasure.

The point is to stiffen your resolve. It's an ad to make you feel good about yourself so you will keep using condoms even though condoms are really inconvenient and reduce pleasure.

So how do you make a boring and anti-romantic product seem sexy?
You don't have to take a risk to be risqué.
"Risqué" to be sure means a pretty small risk but having the ability to judge a crowd well enough to tell a risqué joke and get away with it is something we admire.

They really mean, you shouldn't take certain specific risks when you have sex but that's kinda boring and, given that the ad is aimed at people who already agree in principle and already own a box of condoms but don't always actually open the box because ..., and risqué is something they might aspire to. The ad is designed to encourage them to see themselves as rebels who challenge social norms even though the social norms they are supposedly challenging stopped applying sometime in 1963. You're not a boring lover just because you insist on stopping the action to insist on a condom that is going to reduce your pleasure and your partners because, hey, you're risque!

What really bothers me about the ad is the assumption that sex can or should be risk free but that's a whole other kettle of fish ...

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