TV's Last Taboo

When it comes to sexual content on network television, broadcasting is an ever
more risqué business. Yet in one small corner of the TV industry, a
peculiar standard prevails: Straightforward and frank television advertising for
contraceptives is almost as unheard of as it was in the Father Knows Best
era.

In a recent moment of absurdity, the Fox network denied a contraceptive
company an advertising time slot during its sexual-adventure show Temptation
Island.
The rejected ad was for Encare, a spermicide product made by Blairex
Laboratories. "Here's a program that revolves around the premise of
promiscuity," says Al Kestnbaum, president of Encare's advertising agency,
Chestnut Communications in Greenwich, Connecticut. "I'm grasping for
understanding [about] why they won't have our products." Kestnbaum says his
understanding of Fox's ad policy is that disease-prevention claims are acceptable
but that messages about unwanted pregnancy are not.

The network bias against birth control is even more puzzling given changes in
recent years governing pharmaceutical advertising. The Food and Drug
Administration used to insist that drug companies refrain from
"direct-to-consumer" advertising for prescription drugs. But in 1997, the FDA
changed its policy. The result has been a flood of ads for such products as
Claritin (for allergy relief) and Lipidor (to control high cholesterol), as well
as the ubiquitous Viagra ads targeted at erection-impaired males. So why not
open up the airwaves to contraceptives, many of which, after all, do not require
a prescription and have a wider potential market than new products such as
Viagra?

The networks' dubious explanation: It's a matter of taste and respect for
community standards. (Read: We don't want the Christian right yelling at us.)
There are no federal regulations directly prohibiting ads on TV for condoms,
spermicides, or birth control pills. (Cigarettes are banned from television as
the result of a specific act of Congress.) The National Association of
Broadcasters used to promote a general advertising code for TV and radio
stations, but it was eliminated in the early 1980s owing to antitrust
considerations.

In recent years, ads have begun appearing for Ortho Tri-Cyclen, a birth control
pill. During a six-month period in 2000, Ortho Tri-Cyclen spent $13 million in
advertising on major networks, according to data from Competitive Media Reporting
in New York. That compares with the $20 million spent to advertise Viagra. One
factor helping Ortho Tri-Cyclen is that it has been okayed by the FDA as a
treatment for acne, a use that makes its message more palatable to the networks.
Condom ads occasionally air on broadcast TV, but they are more common on cable
stations. According to an Adweek report, the commercials are inevitably
focused on disease prevention, not contraception.

Meanwhile, the increasing sexual content on TV is quantifiable. Leaving aside
news, sports, and children's shows, nearly two-thirds of television programming
had some form of sexual content last season, according to a study released in
February by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That's up from the 1997–1998 season,
in which the figure was put at 56 percent. And for every 20 times a "sexual
situation" appears, there is just one instance implying a risk or responsibility,
the study found. As well, the percentage of sexual scenes that depict teenagers
rose from 3 percent in 1997–1998 to 9 percent in 1999–2000.

With "reality TV" still in vogue, why shouldn't networks let a little reality
creep into contraceptive advertising? Sex sells--but so could birth
control.

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