Sex Sells Family Planning and Safer Sex: Why Aren’t We Using It?

Sex and sensual images have been used for years in developed countries to sell everything from beer and soft drinks to cars and hotels, yet in reproductive health we have shied away from doing this even though much of our work is aimed specifically at people who are having, or contemplating, sexual relations.

Can the promise of a better orgasm, or at least a fear-free sexual experience, improve the chances that couples will use family planning? If a couple is not afraid of getting pregnant or picking up a sexually-transmitted infection, will they enjoy the sexual experience more? And if they do, shouldn’t the reproductive health and family planning community capitalize on that and apply the lessons learned by the multitude of marketers who know that sex sells?

I realize that the idea is scary for those who worry that such strategies will promote sex. It is safer to keep family planning and reproductive health medicalized, sanitized and respectable.

But the last time I checked, young people did not call their friends to talk about their “reproductive health” or “contraceptive options.” They talk about their sex lives — and they talk about it a lot! More and better use of language, imagery and presentation of a sensual and even erotic nature will go a long way towards making family planning more desirable, even fashionable, especially among young people who are increasingly sophisticated in terms of marketing.

Perhaps most importantly, people use products because of imagery and the aspirational qualities associated with it. I believe that if we start using the same tactics that have proven effective with other consumer goods to market products that are, in fact, all about relationships, love and sex, we will increase demand for these products.

A couple of examples:

For obvious reasons, condoms are a product easily promoted with sensual imagery, a fact that is now generally accepted by the reproductive health community. In Brazil and the Philippines, DKT International is using sexy imagery to sensualize and promote condom use. In the Philippines, DKT has promoted Premiere condoms in partnership with For Him Magazine, while in Brazil, steamy TV commercials and a sexologist blog combine erotica with practical advice promoting safety.

In Africa as well, condom programming has evolved. In Malawi, Chisango (which means “shield” in the local language) was launched in 1994 as part of an HIV prevention program, with a brand featuring a silhouetted image of a demure couple with a Zulu shield. It was a conservative brand for a conservative country. But by the mid-2000s, condom use among young men (one of the prime target groups of Chisango) was waning and research showed they rejected this now outdated brand, calling it “my father’s condom.” A new, more provocative brand was developed — a photo of a sexy woman from the waist down, revealing a shapely leg bared by a slit in her dress. The image set off a bit of a firestorm. The National Censorship Board declared the image “obscene” and it had to be taken off outdoor billboards. But it was allowed to remain on the package and in other advertising and promotion. The negative publicity actually helped sales.

Use of erotic imagery to promote family planning (as opposed to HIV prevention) has been less the norm but this need not be the case. In Indonesia, DKT International has used sensual images of a couple on a bed, legs entwined, to promote emergency contraception. Also in Indonesia, DKT has used the promise of a better sexual experience to promote intrauterine devices, counseling men in ads that IUDs do not take away any pleasure from intimacy.

Those of us in global health need to be willing to meet consumers closer to where they are living, thinking and having sex when we promote family planning and reproductive health.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • andrew-jenkins

    You make a great point and I think it’s incredibly important to make safe sex and family planning… well… sexy.


    I have two primary concerns though.


    1.) we run the risk of promoting a heteronormative narrative about sex and sexuality.


    2.) we also run the risk of objectifying women’s bodies in the process of selling sex for family planning purposes.


    I think these are important subjects to take into consideration.

  • sschoice

    Christopher, you make good points about the importance of sex-positive messages in marketing contraceptive products.  But beyond that, wouldn’t it help further market contraceptive products if the marketing messages were combined with targeted sex-positive messages about health care providers who could offer necessary services to go with those products?

    This sort of messaging is especially important to young, relatively low-income (or nearly no-income in some cases) who don’t go to a school or college with a clinic that dispenses birth control, and don’t have a job with a company that provides affordable health insurance benefits.  They need the products of course but they need so much more. 

    Many of them need professional attention for more than just basic preventative reproductive health care, they may  need attention for psychological problems as well — which they may have had treated only with medication and a screening questionaire. 

    In the USA we hear a great deal about increased numbers of young people having these issues with psychological problems and unsatisfactory treatment, and because of economic and political changes it may be worse in the USA than some other countries, but one might suppose that many other countries may be seeing similar difficulties.

    Mental health care providers and health care providers who address mental health issues also need to be reaching out with a sex-positive message, because their help may be needed by growing numbers of young people having dysfunctional relationships due in part to psychological problems. 

    As far as Andrew’s concerns go, it’d be hard to avoid some sort of stereotyping in every single commercial, but if all commercials avoided putting anyone in a negative light (exceot for people who were clearly acting in irresponsible or exploitative manners) and if there were spots developed in marketed in the same channel to straight, gay, bisexual, etc viewers — which would be reasonable to do because in all nearly demographics there’s going to be that sort of diversity — tactics like that could help avoid the hetronormative, objectifying pitfalls that are of course should be avoided.

    —southern students for choice, athens


  • crowepps

    While certainly it is important to find a way to persuade all populations to practice safe sex, “family planning” is by definition heteronormative.

  • dreene

    Fantastic points, Chris. We should be using whatever is perceived as relevant and compelling to the audience. Yet just as we should not ignore sex as a powerful messaging tool, we should not assume it’s always the right tool. In Romania, where PSI helped develop a thriving condom market after the fall of communism, we fell into the logic trap of CONDOMS=SEX=FUN & SEXY. Interestingly enough, when we finally challenged the logic with consumer research among men, we found that condoms were less about the pleasure side of sex and more about eliminating the bad (as perceived by audience) things that can happen as a result of sex. Somewhat embarrassingly, we needed research to tell us that from a pleasure standpoint, few men prefer to use a condom. Yet they do to protect themselves and their partners from undesired outcomes. Our audience views condoms more as aspirin (a remedy to a problem) than as Viagra (enhancing pleasure), and what is compelling and relevant to them is high confidence that the condom will do what it’s supposed to do. The world leader’s packaging looks more like a pharma product than a sex tool; that also told us something. Yes, sex sells, and Romania is not Malawi, but we should position our solutions in ways that are most relevent to the target audience. 

    –David Reene, PSI

  • divine-oubliette

    Better Orgasms = A Copper IUD


    For my husband and I at least! *giggle* Not having BCP that dry up your natural lubricants, or a Depo shot that erradicates your sex drive or how about a vaginal rings that gives you migaines?


    Better sex should be a way to get women/couples BC that works for them, sex does sell after all! My husbands O word isn’t orgasm anymore, it’s ovulation – it’s awesome to be able to cycle normally and feel the power of my orgams the way they should be without hormonal interference.  All becaue we finally found the birth control that works for us.


    Too many birth control commercial focus on not having zits and not having periods and not the baby free awesome sex you could be having, Americans are too puritancial though I think to focus on the actual sex part of birth control.