They’re saying that Magic Johnson’s greatest assist is the one he’s giving to safer sex: The L.A. Lakers’ playmaker extraordinaire may have done more to bring home the reality of the HIV virus than any other person or group. But it may take more than Magic to crack one pocket of resistance to sexual candor-television advertising. It is ironic that TV — the medium in which Earvin Johnson became Magic, the medium in which he said farewell to basketball and made his plea for responsible sex — will not allow ads for condoms, one of the best protections available against the virus that at least 40,000 Americans contract each year.
With the exception of Fox, which changed its policy days after Johnson’s announcement, none of the major networks will accept paid condom ads. They see the question as one of beliefs, not public health. ”We feel the issue is a deep-seated religious and moral issue,” says Janice Gretemeyer, ABC’s director of media relations. ”We don’t believe it’s appropriate to take ads on controversial issues.” Richard Cutting, NBC manager of corporate communications, stresses that ”there’s no national consensus on the subject,” and adds: ”Some segments of the public feel that advertising condoms would encourage promiscuity.” Yet this season, sex is more abundant than ever in story lines. Doogie Howser’s season premiere, for instance, dealt with the deflowering of the 18-year-old doctor; an early Roseanne episode involved her oldest daughter obtaining birth control pills.
Why is sex okay in prime time but not commercial time? According to CBS policy, ”The issues can be given a more balanced treatment than in a commercial. There is less of a propensity to offend.” Though local affiliates have the option of airing the ads, most condom manufacturers say it’s too costly to create a campaign that will run in only a few markets. Most networks do run public-service announcements, usually during adult viewing hours. ”The climate for PSAs has improved,” says Fred Kroger, director for the Centers for Disease Control’s national AIDS information and education program. ”Many stations still won’t accept them if the focus is on condoms. It’s one thing to talk about prevention, it’s another to promote it.”
Who are the networks so afraid of offending? A 1990 Roper Organization study revealed that 64 percent of Americans were not opposed to condom commercials on the air after 9 p.m. A 1987 Harris poll, dealing with the use of condom ads to prevent the spread of AIDS, showed 74 percent in favor.
On the other hand, Concerned Women for America, an organization claiming a membership of 600,000, mounted a massive letter-writing campaign in 1987 when the first condom PSAs aired. ”Safe sex is a myth,” says CWA press secretary Caia Mockaitis. ”Condoms are not the answer. The only safe sex is a monogamous, married relationship. Teaching kids less is cheating them.”
Not so, says Dr. David Rogers, vice chairman of the National Commission on AIDS. ”Seventy to 80 percent of teenagers are actively engaged in intercourse,” he says. ”To deny them condoms (and information) is to withhold potentially lifesaving equipment. It’s not foolproof, but it’s vastly superior to unprotected sex.” Rogers admits that ”safer sex” would be a more accurate description, but right now, he adds, ”it’s as good as we’ve got.”