“When Pirates Feast … Who Pays?” Condoms, Advertising, and the Visibility Paradox, 1920s and 1930s

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 11 (4):479-505 (2014)

For most of the 20th century, the condom in the United States was a cheap, useful, but largely unmentionable product. Federal and state statutes prohibited the advertising and open display of condoms, their distribution by mail and across state lines, and their sale for the purpose of birth control; in some states, even owning or using condoms was illegal. By the end of World War I, condoms were increasingly acceptable for the prevention of sexually transmitted disease, but their unique dual function—for disease prevention and contraception—created ongoing ambiguities for sellers, consumers, and distributors as well as for legal, political, health, and moral leaders. Not until the 1970s did condoms emerge from the shadows and join other personal hygiene products on open drugstore and supermarket shelves and in national advertisements. Then came the 1980s and AIDS when, despite the rise of Ronald Reagan, the radical right’s demonization of condoms, and the initial reluctance of condom merchants to market to gay constituencies, the HIV/AIDS epidemic slowly but inexorably propelled the condom to the top of the prevention agenda. The condom’s journey from lewd device to global superstar was fitful, but colorful. The Comstock Act of 1873, prohibiting birth control information and devices, created a vast underground operation—periodically illuminated, however, by arrests, protests, legal proceedings, and media coverage. This essay chronicles one such moment of illumination: the legal battle in the 1920s and 1930s over the legitimacy and legality of the Trojan Brand condom trademark and the unusual series of advertisements produced by the Youngs Rubber Corporation, makers of Trojans, to dramatize the ethical and economic issues of the trademark battle. Culminating in Youngs Rubber Corporation v. C.I. Lee & Co., Inc. , this landmark case in trademark law established the right of the Trojan Brand condom, despite its ambiguous dual function, to the protection of a federal trademark. I seek to show how the Youngs antipiracy ad series illuminates the paradox of visibility by illuminating the paradox of any binary division: to establish the one depends inevitably on invoking or making visible—even if to suppress—the other. This essay is a case study in the negotiation of such a dialectic
Keywords History of condoms  Trojan Brand condoms  Youngs Rubber Corp.  Advertising  Visibility  Trade piracy  Trademark law  Dual protection
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DOI 10.1007/s11673-014-9583-7
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No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880.[author unknown] - 1986 - Journal of the History of Biology 19 (1):155-156.

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