Condom-nation | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


Who's really being protected by a ban on condom ads?

Well, I never thought I'd see the day. Channel 4 -- the station that gave us news anchor Kelly Frey gyrating around a stripper's pole -- has found something to be embarrassed by.

Condom advertisements.

On July 16, the New York Times reported that WTAE, along with KDKA and WPXI, had rejected TV ads submitted by Trojan. The company has been placing the spots nationally, but sought to purchase additional local ads in Pittsburgh, to test how they performed here.

Instead, the company ended up testing the tolerance of our local media decisionmakers. And not surprisingly, Pittsburgh failed dismally.

The ad isn't explicit -- at least not when compared to an episode of Desperate Housewives. It features pigs trying to pick up women at a bar; one of the pigs morphs into a human after buying a condom, and the viewer is urged to "evolve" by using condoms.

I'm sure some people would be offended by the spot ... but then such people are probably already busy writing to Warner Brothers, demanding that Porky Pig put on some pants. So who cares?

The stations have been tight-lipped about the rationale for their decision. WPXI general manager Ray Carter told the Times' Andy Newman (my predecessor here) that the spots were "not ... appropriate for the market." I'm not sure where Carter gets that idea; Trojan ads already run on local radio stations, and despite rumors to the contrary, many Pittsburghers do have sex. But one thing's certain: The problem is not that local TV stations are too high-minded to accept the ads.

In recent months, for example, WTAE's news department alone has shown us Frey taking a fitness class based on striptease moves, and Andrew Stockey offering sex tips. (Cardiovascular exercise, he told us in May, "is basically gonna enhance your experience together.") And just look at the ads already on TV.

We're already treated to ads for Viagra, which gives a boost before sexual activity, and for anti-herpes drugs used by the unwary after sexual activity. But apparently, you can't advertise condoms that might save lives during sexual activity itself.

Well, actually, you can -- as long as you don't try to buy the ads locally. Trojan is placing the ads with WTAE and WPXI's national network affiliates, ABC and NBC. (CBS and Fox both rejected the spots.) So the stations will carry the ads ... but only during times when the networks, rather than the locals, control the spots.

That makes the local decision as pointless as it is hypocritical. One senses it was made because of a form of protection Carter and Co. do believe in: covering their own asses. And the truth is, on some level I can't blame them for wanting to dodge Pittsburgh's moral scolds. Your City Paper once featured a movie still depicting two women looking longingly into each other's eyes. They weren't groping or kissing each other, and they were fully clothed. But that expression of ardor got us kicked out of a local restaurant.

Maybe what really disturbs some people is portraying men as buffoons (as in the Trojan ad) or as merely beside the point. Or maybe there's another double standard at work: "It's not that sexual activity can't be discussed -- it's only sexual responsibility that seems taboo," says Erica Fricke of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania.

Sadly, though, sexual responsibility is what we need to hear more about. According to the Allegheny County Health Department, local infection rates for the common STDs have increased in recent years. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of reported chlamydia infections in the county has grown by nearly half; the number of reported gonorrhea cases has increased nearly 20 percent.

Those diseases afflict people ages 15 to 24 years old most of all -- and as Fricke notes, "People that age are more likely to get information from TV rather than pamphlets."

Planned Parenthood is urging people to call the local stations, and pressure them to accept the Trojan ads. It may be the first time a media company ever needed encouragement to make more money.

Meanwhile, if those Trojan folks have some leftover ad dollars to spend, City Paper sales representatives are standing by. They are also almost totally shameless: As long as there's a dollar to be made, they'll even do something responsible, like promote safe sex.

If only our TV outlets were so mercenary.

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