a morning with condom commercials

Someone sent me a link, which led to an entire morning spent watching condom commercials on youtube.

Thankfully I have the kind of job where I can call this “productive.” Honestly!

I also happen to have just returned from a conference about prevention strategies and I’m kinda surprised at how… well… I mean… what are these commercials supposed to DO? Are they really gonna make people more likely to buy and use condoms?

Behavior change generally categorizes the consequences of behavior according to three characteristics: time, certainty, and valence. Consequences that are soon, certain, and positive are the most strongly rewarding, and consequences that are soon, certain, and negative are extinguishing, whereas things that are delayed, uncertain, and neutral have the least impact on behavior.

“Should I buy or use a condom?” asks the TV viewer. “Are there soon and certain rewards for using condoms? Does condom use prevent soon, certain punishments?” The commercial attempts to say, “Yes! Yes! And… um, Yes!”

“Condoms aren’t sexy,” says the TV viewer, so the commercial attempts to change the emotional/sexual valence around condom use, like this one:

The above aims to increase the positive valence associated with condom use. Alternatively, you can attempt to increase the negative valence associated with NOT using condoms.

“After all, the negative consequences of condom use are delayed and uncertain,” says the TV viewer. “I’ve had unprotected sex without causing unwanted pregnancy or STI transmission, so why would I bother?”

“But if they DO happen eventually, they’re REALLY REALLY A HASSLE,” says the commercial:

(This is probably a simpler and less stigmatizing consequence compared to, say, HIV infection…)

But the general theme of the funny condom commercials on youtube seems to be just making condoms accessible, friendly, sexy, and cute. A sort of generic, “Yay, condoms!” message. After all, how hard a sell can it be? Condoms = getting laid, and isn’t the inherent excellence of getting laid the point of, well, every other commercial on television?

But reasons not to use condoms are real and often both soon and certain – stigma, embarrassment, shame, not wanting to seem like a slut or like you don’t trust your partner or your partner shouldn’t trust you, not wanting to concretize the potential consequences of sex (“can’t happen to me!”)…. And because the not-so-good consequences of failing to use condoms (pregnancy, STI, HIV) are delayed and uncertain, they are less salient than the not-so-good consequences of USING condoms.

I see that the funny commercials are working at the large-scale stigma around condom use. Like:


(Emily is a sucker for cheezee dance toonz.)

Condoms are for oral sex too!

But what I would LOVE to see – and maybe someone has done it; send me a link if you’ve seen it somewhere! – is a commercial that turns the PURCHASE of condoms into a celebration. While in real life people may feel embarrassed or awkward buying their latex, how about a commercial of a kid putting their condoms on the counter and the grandma-lookin’ person behind the counter calls for a price check on condoms, resulting in an explosion of confetti, dance music, sexy smiling people offering congratulations, etc.

After all. If you’re using a condom, it means you’re having seeeeeeeeeeex. And lower-risk sex at that!

And lower-risk sex between consenting adults is undeniably something to celebrate.