BEIJING — The camera circles a beautiful girl and a handsome young man as her voice off-camera tells us how her boyfriend has had a lot of relationships in the past.
“It’s okay. I know that protection and prevention are important,” says the young woman from off-screen.
She’s standing against a white background, dotted with other figures floating in and out of shot. It could be a TV commercial for Calvin Klein or Esprit, but it’s not. This is China’s first condom commercial and it’s the latest evidence of massive economic and social change in the world’s most populous country, with its populations of 1.3 billion.
“There are encouraging signs — there’s no way you could have made this film even one year ago, it would have been forbidden,” says Nikolaus von Wolff, the German co-director of the commercial that ran for the first time this month on CCTV-1, the main Chinese state channel.
China’s powerful Family Planning Ministry and Germany’s state development agency CIM, as well as the United Nations population fund UNFPA sponsored Von Wolff and his Chinese counterpart Liu Zhefeng.
“The whole thing about SARS showed openness can help, that it can have a positive effect and not threaten the whole system,” he says.
The condom commercials are a big step forward in liberalizing Chinese TV where tough rules on public decency still hold sway.
Condom ads appeared on the backs of buses and briefly on TV in the late 1990s but were removed on grounds of obscenity.
China has nearly one million people with HIV or AIDS, according to health ministry statistics. Some estimates put the figure far higher.
But the last two years have seen China step up its battle against the disease and the powers-that-be are accepting that condoms help prevent diseases and should not be simply regarded as a sex product.
The ban on advertising condoms was lifted in August last year and von Wolff made a successful pitch.
Production took place in an old studio in the Western Hills outside Beijing — five huge aging lamps exploded during filming but the team overcame difficulties to produce the ads.
China’s TV advertising landscape is diverse, ranging from commercials that promise to stretch people to make them taller to the more traditional style familiar to western audiences.
The condom ad is a major leap in sophistication in Chinese advertising, which tends to work on the lowest common denominator because of the diverse nature of the residents.
“The advertising world here is only now discovering the individual but you still see advertisements which say: A family plus a car equals love,” says von Wolff.
“We hope that the enormous impact of this ad will help make it easier to make other ads that are really necessary.”