Contraception: worth talking about, but very quietly please

Obviously, sex sells. Ad breaks are full of it, explicit and implied – writhing perfume models, the jeans left grass stained by a hot date that only the right detergent can save, flirtatious chocolate-shilling sensualists – and basically that’s fine with me. If advertisers’ didn’t have sex, Christ knows what kind of terrifying methods they’d turn to instead for convincing us to buy stuff.

But in between the nudging, winking and occasional panting, wouldn’t it be nice if sometimes the message seeped through that sex is normal? Something you could talk about calmly, and even plan for – rather than just spritzing some body spray and hoping for the right result. That was the implication of the Department Of Health’s “Contraception: Worth Talking About” ad series. So how come this radio ad (below) has just been criticised by the ASA as too strong for the ears of under-16s?

It’s not explicit. It doesn’t even mention sex, and there’s no heavy breathing – not even a smutty pun. Just a mother and daughter talking about “the coil”, followed by a couple talking about “an implant”, and the message that you can get more information from a doctor or nurse.

At the very worst, a parent whose child heard this at 3:58 might be forced to explain that contraception is something grown-ups use when they don’t want to have babies. And the under-16s the ASA wants to protect from this blandly informative ad certainly include teens who are thinking about having sex, and who could use the encouragement to seek advice.

There is a weird belief that we can guide children to their 16th birthday without ever having to explain where babies come from, never mind how they can be avoided. It’s a dim-witted fetshisation of innocence, as any parent should know: children are curious, and they inevitably spend time with adults of (duh) child-bearing age. It takes a lot of misdirection and obfuscation to explain a pregnancy without answering questions about sex.

But plenty of adults are willing to squirm their way out dishonestly. It’s typical of this cultural squeamishness that an advert for information gets restricted. Eroticism and salaciousness are everywhere, but apparently nothing’s as harmful to children as the promise of a straight answer.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010