Condoms in Asia: Sex sells

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!)

But marketing matters little if it does not spark sales, say health workers who see little effort on the part of the government to get condoms into the hands of youth and at-risk populations, such as injecting drug users and sex workers.

Thailand has had far more success in reaching out to these groups. But a government focus on treatment for HIV rather than prevention has resulting in an up-tick in the number of HIV cases among youth who don’t want to talk about disease.

“The government’s approach to safe sex is not realistic,” says Pailin. Mechai has also lost some faith in the government and has returned to PDA’s original family planning campaign because he says “it sounds nicer.”

Differences in religion and market structure have influenced the way Indonesia and Thailand reach out to their citizens. The private sector dominates Thailand’s condom brands, which are led by Durex and One Touch. Ads appear mostly in magazines or as posters in nightlife areas, while the Ministry of Health controls public service announcements.

Indonesians bought some 110 million condoms last year – a five-fold increase from 1996, when DKT entered Indonesia. But Callahan says the number is disappointing given a population of 240 million. Considering that Brazil handed out 55 million condoms during the week-long Carnival festival, Indonesia’s figure seems even less significant.

Most people here buy condoms at gas stations and convenience stores, such as 7-11 in Thailand and Indomaret in Indonesia. A three-pack of Sutra condoms costs $0.33, which makes them more affordable for the truck drivers, waiters, sex workers and other low-end users DKT targets.

The packaging regulations that limit the Thai market don’t apply in Indonesia, where a couple locked in embrace graces Sutra condom packs. But local bylaws in some provinces criminalize women caught carrying condoms, and the government has shown a lack of willingness to take on condom promotion by shifting responsibility to organizations such as DKT.

And where Thailand was able to use religion to spread its safe sex message, Callahan says enlisting imams or Catholic priests would not be the right thing to do in Indonesia.

“Religious leaders have an important responsibility to provide the right understanding about sexual behavior,” Dr. Tarmizi Taher, former minister of religion said during a National Condom Week in 2008.

“Islam does permit condom use as long as the use in within marriage,” Tarmizi added. But most married Indonesian couples don’t use condoms and they don’t feature anywhere in Indonesia’s family planning campaigns.