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Sex in the media: do condom ads have a chance? (View from the Field).

Few would argue that sex does not permeate the media in the United States. (1) Research shows not only that the incidence of sexual content on television has risen steadily over the years but also that the media may serve as important sex educators for young people. (2) Nevertheless, there are few messages on television that help teens and adolescents learn about responsible sexual behavior and sexual health. (3)

The news is, of course, not all bad. Some adolescents at least believe that the media has taught them that they should use condoms. The Teen Media Project, a current five-year project funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and conducted by researchers Jane Brown, Carol Pardun, and Kelly L'Engle of the University of North Carolina found that both African American and White young females and African American young males believed that the media states they should use condoms. Unfortunately, white males were less likely to think the media portrayed the message of using condoms.

Still this finding provides reason for media outlets to more aggressively send appropriate messages to an impressionable audience.


We know that many teens consume large amounts of sexual media images just from the advertising alone! A one-hour television show can have upwards of 40 commercials. It is not surprising that many of these ads use sex to sell.

Whether it's a Victoria Secret's commercial that depicts a shove-it-in-your-face approach to sexual appeal, or a more subtle Toyota Camry commercial that exclaims some people are just "too sexy for their cars," or a Caress body wash commercial that shows a woman slowly removing her clothes, sex is a prominent part of television viewing for America's youth.

And it's not just television commercials. Recent ads in teen magazines have depicted a tampon with the headline "Size matters," and a couple French kissing with the headline "there's more than one way to share a Starburst."


Clearly, teens are seeing sexual images in the media. Is it unreasonable to expect that some of those messages should depict the dangers of unprotected sex-and tell teens how they can protect themselves with condoms?

Even though the evidence points to the impact that the media have on shaping our social values, networks have only recently allowed paid condom advertising on the airwaves, and they restrict not only the time of day the advertisements can air but also the message and tone of the ads. (4)

With the large number of sexual messages being conveyed in television programming, it seems incongruous to avoid references to sexual risks and responsibilities in the programming itself. (5) It is perhaps just as incongruous not to allow contraceptive advertisements on TV or, if allowed, to restrict their opportunity for effectiveness. (6)

We know that 80 percent of young people have intercourse during their teenage years. (7) We also know that young people simply aren't protecting themselves as well as they should.

A joint Kaiser Family Foundation and YM magazine survey found that 58 percent of sexually experienced teens do not use contraception every time they have sex and 40 percent have not talked with a partner about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). (8)


Some broadcasters worry that the public disapproves of condom advertising, and some worry they would lose sponsors that don't want their advertisements run alongside condom ads. (9)

These worries, however, may amount to very little. A recent survey found that 71 percent of Americans favor allowing condom ads on TV--37 percent support the ads running at any time while 34 percent support the ads running at certain times, such as after 10 p.m. Even more support exists for televised condom ads among adults under 50 years of age, 82 percent of whom say condom ads should be allowed. (10)

There is a public service poster that says "Talk to your kids about sex. Everyone else is." That is certainly a message we can send the advertising industry and advertisers as well.


(1.) Jane D. Brown, "Mass Media Influences on Sexuality," Journal of Sex Research, vol. 39, no. 1, 2002, pp. 42-45.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) Dale Kunkel, Kirstie M. Cope, and Carolyn Colvin, "Sexual Messages on Family Hour Television: Content and Context" (Menlo Park, CA: Children Now and Kaiser Family Foundation, 1996).

(4.) Kaiser Family Foundation, "A Survey Snapshot: Condom Advertising on Television" (Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2001).

(5.) 2000-2001 Committee on Public Education, "Sexuality, Contraception, and the Media," Pediatrics, vol. 107, 2001, pp. 191-94.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) The Alan Guttmacher Institute, "Facts in Brief: Teen Sex and Pregnancy" 1998.

(8.) Kaiser Family Foundation and YM Magazine, "National Survey of Teens: Teens Talk About Daring, Intimacy, and Their Sexual Experiences" (Menlo Park, CA: The Kaiser Family Foundation, 1998).

(9.) Kaiser Family Foundation, "Condom Ads on TV: Unwrapping the Controversy" (Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2001).

(10.) Kaiser Family Foundation, "A Survey Snapshot: Condom Advertising on Television."


Some people mistakenly believe that by protecting themselves against pregnancy they are automatically protecting themselves from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). But the male latex condom is the only contraceptive method considered highly effective in reducing the risk of STDs.

Unlike latex condoms, lambskin condoms are not recommended for STD prevention because they are porous and may permit passage of viruses like HIV, hepatitis B, and herpes. Polyurethane condoms are an alternative method of STD protection for those who are latex-sensitive.

Because it is a barrier method that works in much the same way as the male condom, the female condom may provide some protection against STDs. Both condoms should not be used together, however, because they may not both stay in place.

According to an FDA advisory committee panel, it appears, based on several published scientific studies, that some vaginal spermicides containing nonoxynol-9 may reduce the risk of gonorrhea and chlamydia transmission. However, use of nonoxynol-9 may cause tissue irritation, raising the possibility of an increased susceptibility to some STDs, including HIV.

As stated in their labeling, birth control pills, DepoProvera, IUDs, and lambskin condoms do not protect against STD infection. For STD protection, a male latex condom can be used in combination with non-condom methods. The relationship of the vaginal barrier methods--the diaphragm, cap and sponge--to STD prevention is not yet clear.

This was reprinted from the web site of the US. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). See

Carol J. Pardun, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Advertising, University of North Carolina and Kathy Roberts Forde, M.A., Doctoral Park Fellow, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
COPYRIGHT 2002 Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Pardun, Carol J.
Publication:SIECUS Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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