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Condoms in Asia: Sex sells

To boost sales in Indonesia and Thailand, condom makers market the fun aspects of sex.

To boost sales at home, Southeast Asian condom makers have launched new marketing campaigns like this one. (Sara Schonhardt/GlobalPost)

JAKARTA, Indonesia —  A few hours outside Bangkok, the Thai Nippon Rubber factory’s facade is discrete, its interior slightly clinical.

The production process here is fairly simple: An assembly line dips penis-shaped glass cylinders in vats of latex before rolling the molds through high-powered ovens. Water jets blast freshly minted condoms, while conveyor belts usher them to an industrial laundry room for washing and drying.

The testing requires more complex technology. In a sterile lab, hundreds of women in hairnets and white jackets operate machines that scan for defects. A spinning laser evaluates the prophylactics and spits them out into “reject” or “good” bins.

Nearby in the packaging department, another group of women assembles variety packs for export to Brazil, while machines stuff Sutra condoms into slim silver cellophane wrappers.

Welcome to ground zero of Asia's condom production boom.

With more Southeast Asians flouting cultural prudishness by speaking openly about sex, condom companies in Indonsia and Thailand, such as Thai Nippon Rubber hope to raise revenues here in 2010. But that's proving to be a challenge due to deeply engrained social and cultural views that associate condoms with extramarital sex, prostitution and sin.

So rathering than touting the disease-fighting benefits of condoms, they are crafting marketing campaigns that sell sex as, well, fun. There's the TV spot of the busty singer getting “scored on” by a footballer. There are new models that feature vibrating rings ("The Earthquake"). There's a happy, spiky-haired cartoon couple. Others show young women taking control of their sex lives.

Thai Nippon Rubber is one of the region’s largest condom factories, churning out 1.2 billion condoms a year. The company exports 80 percent of its products to South America and Europe, where each adult averages three condoms per year compared to Thais, who use around 1.5 condoms per capita, and Indonesians who struggle to use even one.

Pailin Chintradeja, marketing manager for Thai Nippon Rubber’s One Touch brand, says government fears of societal backlash have led to regulations that restrict condoms from being marketed as sex products.

“Labeling is a problem,” says Pailin, referring to codes that prohibit condom boxes from showing fruit or flesh and frustrating marketers who must come up with creative packaging that says sex through graphics. So far One Touch has used a smiley face to market extra thin condoms called Happy, and an anime-looking couple to attract youth to its Sweeteen brand.

The idea is to use a fun, relaxed message to change people’s attitudes about condom use, says Mechai Viravaidya, a former senator whose contraceptive advocacy efforts earned him the title Mr. Condom.

Is Indonesia going to uphold their anti-pornography law?

In the last two years, Indonesia’s condom market has grown by only 10 percent. Health workers in Thailand also say youth are using fewer condoms because they don’t perceive the risk, and governments are not doing enough to educate them.

When Thailand first launched its family planning campaign in the 1970s to curb population growth, it got monks to paint pro-condom messages on prayer flags. Health advocates now credit those early campaigns with later helping stall the spread of HIV/AIDS. “We started early making condoms acceptable, so when HIV came to Thailand the condom was not seen as something terrible,” says Mechai, currently the chairman of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) that led the condom drive.

Indonesia, on the other hand, has faced resistance from religious groups that say condoms promote free sex. In recent months hard-line Islamists have issued fatwas on everything from women riding motorbikes to wearing tight aerobic clothing, and an anti-pornography law passed in late 2008 continues to weigh on marketers who say it could lead to censorship.

The bill outlaws “sexual materials” in nearly every form imaginable, from drawings to animation to poetry to gestures. Todd Callahan, country manager for DKT, Indonesia’s largest condom distributor, says so far the law has not prevented his company from advertising.

“Some ads are even more direct than they would be in the United States,” he says pointing to DKT’s latest TV clip, which has sexy songstress Julia Perez suggesting to a male footballer trying to shoot his ball between her legs: “Mau masukin? Pake Sutra dulu dong!” (Want to enter? Wrap it up with a Sutra first!)