NEW YORK – A campaign to market a new line of condoms to teens has some people wondering if it's conveying a message that condom use — and, in essence, sex — is cool for kids.
Jimmie Hatz condoms (search) — "jimmie hat" is a hip-hop slang word for condom — are slated to hit some store shelves Feb. 1 and are aimed at urban teens across the country. The company that produces the condoms says it's promoting safe sex, but critics decry the idea of marketing contraceptives directly to teens in a way that seems "hip."
"Basically, what we've tried to do here is make it the cool thing to do, the 'in' thing to do, to protect yourself," said Harry Terrell, CEO of Common Ground USA (search), which produces the condoms.
The marketing campaign targets what Common Ground calls the "hip-hop kulture," particularly in minority communities that are hardest hit with HIV and AIDS. That culture is defined as any group of people — regardless of race — that enjoys emceeing, deejaying, breakdancing "or just loves music," Terrell said.
"When you look at the numbers and the rate of infection continues to rise within the minority population, they're having sex," Terrell said. "We say abstinence is the only way that you're going to be OK. But the fact of the matter is, we can't hide and think that they're going to stop having sex."
To appeal to youth, the condoms are named "Great Dane" and "Rottweiler" and come in shiny wrappers adorned with a cartoon dog wearing a thick gold chain.
But critics say using such "hip" methods to sell contraceptives to teens sends the wrong message.
"I think they're basically doing what all media tries to do, which is sell something, and teenagers are one of the biggest consumers" said Libby Gray, director of Project Reality (search), an abstinence-before-marriage advocacy group.
Gray said in spite of the company's intention to promote safe sex, the marketing campaign doesn't encourage teens to follow the safest lifestyle.
"I think that will make sex look very cool … especially if a rap or hip-hop person … is giving an endorsement for that behavior."
The Centers for Disease Control (search) states on its Web site that "the surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sexual intercourse." When used properly and consistently, condoms are 95 percent effective for pregnancy prevention but does not protect against all STDs. Consistent condom use gives almost 100 percent protection against HIV.
But more can be done, experts said, such as promoting no sex at all.
"What we need are more positive role models for kids who are promoting healthy behavior — abstinence — as the best possible way of prevention," Gray said.
However, others say it would be irresponsible to turn a blind eye to sexual activity among teenagers. According to a CDC report, in 2001, 46 percent of teens in the United States had had sex.
"For sexually active kids, making safer sex and sexual health look like a positive thing, that's all to the good," said Michael McGee, vice president of education and social marketing for Planned Parenthood (search).
"Whether we like it or not, [nearly] half of America's high school students have had intercourse and in the face of that… I'm glad that the folks from Common Ground are being creative in making the concept of personal responsibility cool."
Regardless of "hip" marketing for contraceptives, recent statistics show that teens who are having sex are doing it more safely.
A July 2000 study released by the Centers for Disease Control, for example, shows that the national pregnancy rate for adolescents aged 15 to 19 decreased from 1995 to 1997 by 7.9 percent. Adolescent pregnancy rates were higher for blacks than for whites. It was also found that the percentage of sexually active teens using condoms and long-acting hormonal contraceptive methods increased.
McGee is hopeful that appealing to youth to have safe sex will also reduce the infection rate of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS.
"The youth culture that's into hip-hop come in all different colors, but I do think it's a very wise approach in that we know urban kids are disproportionately affected by HIV," McGee said of the Jimmie Hatz marketing. "I think taking a particular audience segment and identifying the messages that appeals to them and that resonates with them is a smart thing to do."