Rebranding and repackaging: enough to change the culture of government-issued condoms in South Africa?

In a National Assembly session in early September, Cyril Ramaphosa introduced “Max” condoms, a new government-sponsored initiative to provide free condoms.

Before the launch of Max, public restrooms in South Africa had been stocked with Choice condoms.  The transition from Choice to Max condoms, according to a report by Bhekisisa: Center for Health Journalism, came after a 2012 study by the Human Science Research Council showed a decrease in condom use of almost 20% between 2008 and 2012.  In attempting to discover the reasons for this downward trend, the Department of Health commissioned the Society for Family Health to do a consumer study on Choice condoms, to ascertain why people were not using them more frequently.  Discovering the reasons for the public’s dissatisfaction with these free condoms were of the utmost importance, as 83% of condoms distributed in South Africa were these same ones provided free of charge by the government (800 million condoms were distributed by the government in 2015 alone).  The study by the Society for Family Health (conducted in Gauteng and KZN) showed that people disliked the smell, flavor, lack of lubrication, and noise level of the Choice condoms, in addition to their only being available at public government facilities and universities.  People wanted more “choice” in their condoms (ironic, no?), asking for more flavors, scents, and lubrication.

So that’s where the Max condoms came from.  In their search for a better product (with a more attractive branding to boot), Max condoms won out.  The rebranding (by Joe Public Shift in partnership with the Society for Family Health) featured bright colors, clean packaging and a complex message contained in a short, snappy name.  A press release by Joe Public Shift explained that “Max” was chosen to refer to multiple elements “from maximum quality and maximum protection, to maximum pleasure, pushing relevancy and intimacy and creating a “street” tonality..”  They come in four flavors: vanilla, banana, grape and strawberry (the most requested flavor in the aforementioned study).  There has been a push to see these new condoms in more publicly accessible areas like spaza shops, beauty parlors, and high schools, though this last location may prove a challenge as educators have been challenging the provision of condoms at high schools for years.

For some, the new campaign was exciting.  The bright packaging and the new flavors, one Daily Vox respondent, saw the campaign as representing “real advertising for real people.”  The new packaging was effective, as one woman remarked in the video below, since the new packaging didn’t have “a cheap look” like the Choice condoms had.

Another YouTube video showed a man emptying a public restroom of all its leftover Choice condoms, so that it could be restocked with the newMax condoms.

But not everyone’s responses were positive.  In fact, the majority of those published in news outlets were decidedly suspicious if not outright negative.  Wits students reported little change in their opinion towards government condoms, with one student saying “Choice sucks and they [condoms] stink, so even if they make them colourful and add flavour to them, it won’t make a difference to me, I won’t use them.”  And even beyond the quality of the product, some people were unwilling to change their opinions given past misgivings over government condoms.  “Was the announcement about safety or was it about a matter that we know the government hasn’t addressed effectively?,” they wondered, “Will glossing that with a sexy product make the government look good?”. In the video below, multiple people said they would not use government condoms because they perceived them as not being safe.

This was an important point.  The 2016 rebranding was not the first rebranding of government condoms.  In 2004, the now defunct Choice condoms had been repackaged to encourage adherence and to fight popular perceptions about the poor quality of the subsidized prophylactics compared to more popular brands.  The blue packaging and the “No choice, no play” slogan was meant to be “punchy, fun and straightforward.”  Former Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (boo-hiss), explained that the rebranding was meant to not only encourage adherence but send another message: “Significantly though, the youth with whom we spoke also stressed that the name ‘choice’ gave them another message, one that calls for responsibility towards themselves and their peers.”

What was not emphasized in either of these cases, most especially in regards to the Max condoms, was the huge negative impact of government recalls on people’s faith in these products.  In 2007, 20 million government condoms were recalled after reports that a testing manager at the South African Bureau of Standards had accepted bribes from Latex Surgical Products Limited (the manufacturer) in return for certifying defective products.  And again, in 2012, just before the process that resulted in the Max rebranding, another 1.35 million government condoms distributed at the African National Congress centenary celebration were recalled after reports of them breaking during intercourse.  Treatment Action Campaign activist Sello Mokhalipi reported that when the organization ran tests on the faulty condoms, “we poured water into the condoms and they were leaking, not just in one place, they were leaking like a sieve.”  This is not even to mention the 1999 incident, when the health department stapled condoms to instructional pamphlets, poking small holes in the condoms and rendering them useless and deadly.  And the impact of apartheid-era mishaps on the part of the government, and Dr. Basson in particular, cannot be underestimated.  A 2005 article by Isak Niehaus and Gunvor Jonsson showed widespread rumors about Basson’s efforts to spread AIDs, distributing it by putting it in food, clothes, vaccines and government-distributed condoms. Public trust in these condoms was scarred, with one person telling the Mail & Guardian, “We used these condoms. Maybe we are HIV-positive now. This is completely unacceptable.”  For others, it was just a further example of the failings of the government they had placed their faith in.  “This is the kind of thing we expect from government,” another person explained, “We are totally disillusioned after the promises made in ‘94 were not kept. We love this country, but fear for it.”

A lot of the current fears about South Africa come from concerns over the leadership of Jacob Zuma.  Though the list of issues that make people concerned about his leadership could fill a book (and maybe will someday), a lot of them go back to his 2006 Rape Case, which has recently come back into public discourse following the death of his accuser, Khwezi (and the #RememberKhwezi protests that followed).  His sexual politics have become a joke in their own right (take for example the Spear of the Nation painting or Zapiro’s shower-head caricatures), a joke that came up again during the Max condom unveiling.  When Ramaphosa announced the Max condom drive, you could hear people laughing in the background and reports of the event noted that some members even shouted out, “You must give them to Zuma!”.  In a story by the Daily Vox, a Johannesburg resident also associated Zuma with these comments, saying “they couldn’t have gotten Zuma to do it. He is a laughing stock on the matters of wom[e]n’s rights and sexual health.”

And, in fact, many people felt that women’s rights and sexual health were completely lacking from the rebranding of Max condoms, arguing instead that those funds could have been used to sponsor products that would better women’s lives.  Some folks on Twitter questioned the decision to devote funds to rebranding condoms instead of providing free feminine hygiene products.

So while the Max condom rebranding shows a clear intent by the Department of Health to focus on the sexual health of the nation’s citizens, what will the impact of these changes?  Increased condom usage is a valid goal, but increasing condom usage in a country that still views government health interventions with suspicion and fear can only have limited impact.

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