Go Thin or Bust 

How Berkeley's Mayer Laboratories won the battle of the thin condoms.

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But many seemed unimpressed with claims about which brand is thinner.

"Sure, thicker condoms reduce the physical sensation of sex," said Steve, who described himself as a lifelong Trojan buyer. "But is a little less sensation really a bad thing? When I buy a condom, I'm thinking about babies and disease. If the condom also happens to slow things down a bit, hey, that's fine by me."

Joe, a long-time Trojan user, said thinness doesn't necessarily seal the deal for everyone. He suspects that if some company made a thick condom and promised it would make you last longer, a lot of consumers would probably go for it. "There are people who would make that decision, yes, definitely," he said. "I mean think about it. Guys buy condoms for two reasons. One, random hookup; they're just hittin' it, quittin' it. Or, two, there's people who buy condoms because they're with a partner and it helps them last longer." Joe goes for Trojan because of brand allegiance — it's been burned into his brain, "like Kleenex."

Tiffany said it might behoove these companies to advertise a super-thick condom, specifically targeting people who never get laid, and don't want to bust the moment it finally happens. She says she knows several people who would fit this consumer demographic: "They got (condoms) in their shoe, their sock, their back pocket. Probably wearing one at all times."

Kevin said, "The idea of a thin condom, it makes me nervous. It's a little tiny piece of rubber. You're gonna make it thinner? That freaks me out."

Some of Kimono's competitors make the same argument. "The thinner the condoms are, logically the more likely they are to break," said Brian Osterberg, president of condom-maker Intellx, whose said his company's shaped contraceptives represent "a new milestone" in condom-making. "There's two trains of thought here: Super-thin so that you feel through the latex, or a normal condom with oversized shapes that creates the ridges and folds, and that's what creates the friction. We turned upside down the idea that a superthin condom is the best."

But Mayer of Kimono disagrees — he's never had a product recall, after all. Moreover, he sees no irony in his efforts to market the least-condomy condom. "The number one reason people don't use condoms is it interrupts the moment," he said. "Number two is that it's like wearing a raincoat. If we can make something that's silky and next to nothing at all, then more people will use it. Hopefully we can increase utilization because of it."

The market has gone through many significant changes since Kimono started making condoms in 1988. Discussion of sexuality and birth control has become more socially acceptable, information about AIDS and other STDs has increasingly come into the public eye, and more and more companies are marketing directly to female consumers. "Now women are buying condoms with pride," Days explained, "because it's about securing your own sexuality and feeling like a savvy buyer of sex products."

As a result, the advertising patois has changed. A popular new Trojan commercial features a Midwestern sports bar packed with pigs and beautiful woman. One of the pigs turns into a man after buying a Trojan condom from a bathroom dispenser. The slogan, which comes at the very end, seems apropos: "Evolve." Days of Good Vibrations found this ad particularly intriguing. "I thought it was really interesting that they put a spin on it that was almost female-positive," she said. "It was almost one of those 'real men drink beer' [slogans], but it was 'real men wear condoms.' I thought it was really interesting to put it like 'the evolved man uses condoms' — and definitely 'the evolved woman.'"

To Mayer, all this goes to show that the big guys are finally latching on to something he realized twenty years ago. Kimono perceived itself as being a more feminine brand than the others, which is the clear logic behind the gender analogy in Kimono's "Stakes Are High" commercial. Twenty years before Trojan's "Evolve" campaign, Mayer foresaw the importance of appealing to female consumers and going thin. "We kept showing the data that that's the growth, people want good quality, reliable, thin condoms," he said. "We keep innovating. We keep coming out with thinner, better condoms, and we take the high ground."

But as the idea of importing condoms from Asian manufacturers caught on in recent years, Kimono's strategy of making its products in Japan is no longer a major selling point, Days observes. To top it all off, she added, Lifestyles recently came up with an innovation of its own: a latex-free super-thin condom designed for people with latex allergies. "It's fantastic," she said.

In an industry in which a small number of companies battle for supremacy and most advertising is directed at retailers rather than consumers, it's a challenge for a brand the size of Kimono to stay afloat. The recent buyout of Long's Drugs by CVS, which is based in Rhode Island, could hurt Mayer Laboratories, since it's likely the newly consolidated retailer will favor national brands over regional ones.

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