When condom companies tried a bit of Hollywood product placement

Condom wrappers
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In the late 1980s and early 1990s, condom manufacturers got switched onto the idea that Hollywood was the place to promote their products…


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We’re at a stage in the history of cinema where an intricate collection of product placement deals is regularly used to help with the budgets for the majority of blockbuster movies. Take the most recent James Bond adventure, No Time To Die. The assortment of tie-ins for that were said to have been worth the best part of $100m to the production as brands – with varying degrees of subtlety – stumped up to have their products pop up in the midst of Daniel Craig’s 007 fanfare.

It was really from the late 1980s onwards that product placement ramped up in earnest on the big screen, and by the 1990s, it was absolutely ripe. Who can forget sitting through 2005’s Fantastic Four for instance, and spotting the as-subtle-as-a-welly-in-your-nether-regions promo for Burger King? Or the assorted Ford vehicles that pop up as the visitors take a tour around Jurassic Park?

Yet one particular period for product placement was the early 1990s in particular, when the desire for companies to proffer their wares was mixed with messages about the need for safe sex. A decade earlier, James Bond for instance would have jumped into bed without even checking if his Travelodge was in a nice area. Towards the end of the decade, he had to content himself with a quiet cup of tea and some special time with his laptop.

Condom companies, therefore, decided to get in on the product placement game. There was, after all, a chance to knock two things out here. Firstly, they could sell more of their wares, and secondly, the greater presence of condoms in movies would tie up to the safer sex messages that were being promoted across society as a whole.

But would it make any difference? Well, one of the first to give things a try was the company behind Ramses condoms in the US. It spurted up a small five figure sum to have its products pop up in the 1989 hit sequel, Lethal Weapon 2.

But could the filmmakers find a subtle way to weave the condoms into the movie? Well, if all else fails, just put a television commercial in there…

Lethal Weapon scene, as Murtaugh watches a condom commercial

Other companies took note. Appreciating that whilst it was in production few saw 1990’s Pretty Woman becoming the phenomenon that it did indeed turn out to be, that didn’t stop the Gold Circle organisation investing some $15,000 in getting its Safetex condoms on screen. Julia Roberts in that particular film plays a woman whose services are – there’s no easy way to get around this – purchased by Richard Gere, and at one stage, she magics a condom out of her boot. A Safetex condom as it happened, available from all good stores just around the corner from the cinema.

It’s turned into quite a memorable scene, and one that Safetex felt gave it its money’s worth too. Chatting to the Los Angeles Times back in 1993, a product manager at the company said that “to this day, people see our brand and say, ah, the one in Pretty Woman”.

Pretty Woman poster

Whether that led to increased sales is unclear, but it gave Safetex what it wanted – a chance to stand out and upright in the market.

Still, even around the time, there was some dissent as to whether the product placement of condoms was actually making much difference. Certainly the team behind Ramses wasn’t convinced. The-then vice president of its parent company, Schmid, was less than impressed with the screen performance of Ramses. “For what we end up with, it’s rarely worth the trouble”, he insisted. Spoken like a true man, he said that “they promise you everything, but what you usually see is a square package where you can’t even make out the name”.

Typical. All that trouble and you don’t even get a name and number. Also, considering that Ramses got an actual on-screen commercial in a Lethal Weapon sequel, it’s hard to see how it can complain too much about its performance.

Still, the intersection of condoms and the movies would continue, even as question marks were raised over the effectiveness of individual product placement campaigns. Organisations promoting safer sex were certainly happier with the messages being put across.

And there must have been something to it all, as condom companies kept pumping money into films. You’ll see, for instance, Trojan condoms pop up in Sex And The City 2. You’ll find a Durex as a member of the American Pie cast. Steve Carell contemplates a Trojan in The 40-Year Old Virgin. In fact, it’s now – as times have moved on – no surprise at all to see the odd condom spring up in a film.

In fact, at one stage Hollywood went a bit further, and a pair of condom films ended up going head to head against each other in 1997. I’ve written about the showdown between Booty Call and Trojan War elsewhere on this very site.

One final note on this. Perhaps the most effective piece on on-screen promotion I ever saw for a special raincoat wasn’t in a movie itself, but an advert that used to screen beforehand. The UK’s Health Education Authority came up with a superb promo in the early 1990s, that if memory serves wasn’t allowed to be shown on British television, and so ended up programmed before 15 and 18-certificate movies.

Every time I sat through this, it brough the house down at the end, and it seems like a pretty perfect place to end this piece. Stay safe folks, and I’ll leave you in the hands of Mrs Dawson. A very busy lady…

Lead image: BigStock

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