Condom ads expose us: Americans are prudes, Germans unrestrained

In a recent series of print ads, Germany's Doc Morris Pharmacies have used images of Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, and Osama Bin Laden to suggest that safe sex can help protect against the conception of a potential dictator or mass murderer. The campaign is designed to inspire terror but seems to be evoking anger, particularly in China, where Mao is still revered.

Of course, as an American blogger, it's somewhat difficult to comment on German prophylactic commercials. Condom ads in the U.S. have always been a bumpy road: as a recent Trojan condom commercial demonstrates, it's hard for American condom producers to present sex in a non-smirking manner. The company's "Stimulus Package" which can help us "ride out" these "hard times" has all the subtlety of a mack truck. Trojan's recent ad campaign, however, is a significant improvement over the first condom ads on television. In the early 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) ran a commercial featuring a man putting on a pair of socks while a narrator muttered "If you could save your life by something as easy as putting on a sock, wouldn't you do it?" Even sex educators found the ad confusing; personally, I thought that it might be a warning against catching colds in drafty houses.

On the bright side, MTV seems to have emerged as a force for a slightly more creative American take on safe sex. This ad, for example, winks at the American need for innuendo while playing up the freedom of choice theme that underlies much of America's self-image. This one, meanwhile, combines sex, self respect, and feminism in a nice package that plays off a lot of American social ideals.

Of course, the U.S. isn't the only country that has a difficult time approaching the issue of contraception. For example, given the United Kingdom's longstanding reputation for awkward social interaction, it might seem odd that this woman seems so comfortable making evocative noises. However, it's equally worth noting that she is embarrassing herself in the pursuit of comfortable social interaction a little later on. Ironically, this one seems to have a tangential connection to the UK's proud colonial past. Of course, just as the sun has finally set on the British empire, this hapless guy's attempt to evoke the mysteries of African medicine men doesn't seem likely to help him avoid the use of a condom.

When it comes to honesty, the French definitely have an edge. The recent ads for Hansaplast condoms feature interesting tan lines that suggest extremely slow-paced open-air canoodling. Meanwhile, this famous ad demonstrates the definite value of breaking the link between sex and reproduction.

As for other countries ... well, given Australia's reputation for roughing it in the great outdoors, it might seem stereotypical to assume that an Aussie condom company would set a commercial in a campground, but there it is. Similarly, given Latin America's stereotypical machismo, the idea of slipping a snarky gay joke into a condom ad could seem reductive, but Tulipan's clever "boys playing with dolls" ad does a nice job of reversing traditional parental fears about developing children.

As Germany's condom companies explore ways to encourage safe sex, it might be worthwhile to remember that our worst nightmares, while embarrassing, are also the clearest link to our psyches -- and our wallets. If playing into fears of spawning a dictator is what it takes to sell a condom, then bring on the Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Stalin ads!

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