We have all been there! Watching what is generally perceived as ‘family-friendly’ TV content before getting caught off-guard by a stray condom ad objectifying a woman’s body at leisure or showing a distressed woman standing in the dark about to pop an emergency contraceptive pill. If one was to delve deeper into how contraception has been advertised over time, there are political, patriarchal connotations that will come up. Especially in the West, where the church and the state was the same, women’s access to legalised abortions was restricted to the extent that they would opt for alternatives with fatal consequences. This desperation for legalised abortions and/or access to contraception reflected in the advertisement industry that preyed on this psyche.
This article attempts to understand the advertisement industry’s portrayal of various kinds of contraception and how it is largely reflective of the society’s skewed understanding of sex, pleasure, consent and marriage.
Brief History of Advertising Contraception in the West
In the mid-1800s, Madame Restell (born Ann Lohman) became infamous as a self-prescribed physician performing abortions for those who reached out to her in desperation and for the others, as single-handedly breaking the institution of family and motherhood through dangerous, unverified means. One anti-abortion advocate called her a “monster in human form”. Yet, because of the lack of institutionalised means for women to control their pregnancies, Restell and her ‘medicines’ continued to be advertised in the daily newspapers for women experiencing “female trouble”. The euphemisms were not lost on those who were in need.
Despite public scrutiny over her prescriptions and surgeries, that Restell continued to be sought after by many, showed how necessary it was for the state to sanction abortions. Reportedly, when Madame Restell had began practicing, the New York state’s law allowed for an abortion before “quickening”, i.e. before the mother felt the foetus’ first move in her womb and an abortion after “quickening” was likened to second-degree manslaughter.
As was evident, for the advertisement industry, the desperation of the women to somehow control their pregnancies even as the state was eons away from legalising abortions, was a golden opportunity. Using euphemisms such as “feminine trouble”, “odour”, etc., brands sold contraception (to women). Lysol is one such example. Before the oral contraceptive pill reached the market in the 1960s, douching was a commonly used form of birth control, noted Andrea Tone in Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. Findings that indicated how Lysol – an antiseptic soap – contained compounds that were reported as causing burning, inflammation and even deaths and in 1911, doctors had recorded 193 Lysol poisoning cases and five deaths as a result of uterine irrigation with Lysol. Yet, the agent was aggressively advertised as gentle and sold as a “feminine hygiene” product – a common terminology used for advertising abortifacients, wrote Tone.
Tone observed that Lysol was marketed by its manufacturer as a prescription for “odors”, understood widely as a term for contraception. So much was its popularity that by 1940 the douche was the most popular form of birth control available.
In the 1960s, along with the women’s liberation movement, the consciousness that women were disproportionately bearing the burden of reproduction, child rearing under the facade of the ‘happy homemaker’ tag also gained momentum. This is exactly why the “mothers” of the Pill, Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, had emphasised on how the Pill and contraceptive mentality – that is women’s rights to control their fertility – would lead to the emancipation of women. However, the emphasis on women’s agency and sexual liberty translated into a stereotypical conditioning through advertisements—that only women had anything to do with contraception and men, on the other hand, could wash hands off accountability.
Which is why, the Pregnant Man advertisement of 1970 asking a simple question “Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?” garnered widespread attention. For maybe the first time, the gaze of contraception advertisements was almost shifted onto the imagery of a man with a pregnant belly. However, it did not exactly hold men accountable and merely posited a man in what was then a utopian narrative for men of getting pregnant and facing consequences.
One would think that the society was now inching towards a progressive portrayal and attitude towards contraception, what with the US Supreme Court’s decision to legalise abortions in 1973. However, condom advertisements were banned in mainstream broadcast media until deaths due to AIDS peaked. Herein, we see the discourse around contraception widen beyond narratives around abortions. There was more that contraception had to offer – preventing the spread of STIs and HIV-AIDS, for one.
In 1987, the year this advertisement was aired, around 48,000 lives were reportedly lost to AIDS in the United States.
Stereotypes in Contraception Advertisements in India
If we were to look closer home in India, advertisements on contraception are also largely built on stereotypes. Men were given ‘pleasure’ portrayals, women were given ‘shame and guilt’ portrayals, family planning advertisements almost always had a rural India setting, vague jargons such as “helmet pehne” (wear a helmet) were used and women’s bodies were objectified and hyper-sexualised to the T. Granted, with Sunny Leone, a former actor in the porn industry, there was a shift in women’s depiction in condom advertisements as enjoying sex for once, yet this was achieved at the cost of Indian audience’s depraved need to typecast Sunny Leone as a sex symbol owing to her past.
There has been a clear demarcation. While a Ranveer Singh is shown celebrating sex, an advertisement for an oral contraceptive pill has an anxious woman wondering what to do next.
Another popular tool employed in condom advertisements in India is to seek the sanction of marriage. The setting would often be chosen as the first night of the protagonist couple after their wedding because large sections of the society are still unwilling to acknowledge that pre-marital sex is a reality and marriage is the only sanctioned institution that could normalise sex. Meanwhile, we are still far from associating sex with pleasure.
Especially condom advertisements more often than not, emphasise on men as the subjects while using women as props or objects to drive home the message of safe sex.
The government advertisements on IUCD (intra-uterine device) for women and NSV (non-scalpel vasectomy) for men also perpetuate the stereotype of sex for men as more about pleasure and for women, as only within the peripheries of family planning and her role as a caretaker of the household. The advertisement for NSV here, in fact, is also problematic in the sense that the protagonist is a man shown as never getting a NO in response and now that he has opted for a NSV, the assumption made is that his wife would now never say NO to him for sex. If you are looking for lessons on consent, it is highly unlikely you will find one here.
The Way Forward in Advertising Contraception
As recently as in 2017, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry ordered that condom advertisements will be aired only between 10pm to 6am following complaints about airing of “explicit content” in such advertisements. The ministry stated that the move was to prevent children from getting exposed to “indecent and inappropriate” content. The government garnered flak for its sanskritised approach to the topic of sex and contraception. However, it is not just the government’s conservative approach towards advertising contraception that needs to highlighted here. Other stakeholders, such as the ad-makers themselves, should do better than just employing patriarchal tropes such as either objectifying women’s bodies or sanctioning sex through elaborate set-ups to show a marriage and a family, to carry forward the narrative of ‘sex only for procreation, not pleasure’. Before Sunny Leone, there was hardly a woman on the TV screen who would be seen enjoying (safe) sex.
Furthermore, the repeated and sustained portrayals of temporarily able-bodied people in heterosexual relationships in the advertisements continue to alienate the marginalised communities such as people with disability, trans, gender non-binary and people in same-gender relationships. A more inclusive approach in advertisements, with accountability and pleasure as associated with all genders could be a step in the direction of awareness-oriented approach in contraception advertising.
This article is published as a part of the #MyBodyMyMethod awareness campaign on contraception. Feminism in India and Find My Method will be talking about the various forms of contraception, busting contraception myths and taboo and much more throughout the month of September, 2020. Find My Method works to provide accurate contraceptive information for a global audience. You can find localised information that is easy to understand, and is globally representative on Find My Method’s website and forum. You can follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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