Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Durex Wants to Break India's Condom-Buying Taboo

Updated on
  • Reckitt’s India unit introduces ‘Durex Jeans’ condom line
  • Condom usage at 6 percent of couples reflects stigma in India

Jeans are easier to buy than condoms in India -- at least that’s what Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc is betting with a new line of Durex rubbers.

India has more married women with an unmet need for family planning than any other country, and social stigma and a lack of privacy in stores has kept condom use to less than 6 percent of contraceptive methods in a country also battling the world’s third-highest HIV burden. Reckitt’s Durex India unit is trying to counter that with “Durex Jeans,” released Friday.

The two-condom packs, which sell for 25 rupees (38 cents), are in packaging resembling the leather badges sewn on denim jeans, and displayed in jar-like bowls on drugstore counters. The packaging makeover is aimed at helping consumers overcome the embarrassment of buying a product linked with sex -- a taboo subject in conservative India.

“Asking for Durex Jeans should be cool,” said Rohit Jindal, marketing director for Reckitt in India, in a telephone interview. “The whole package is made to normalize sex and condoms.”

Condoms are a stigmatized topic in India, where promotion and open discussion about their use are considered inappropriate, Sangram Kishor Patel, a senior researcher at the Population Council in New Delhi, and colleagues from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai wrote in a study last year.

‘Psychological Stigma’

“It is a good step to promote the usage of condom in India, where condom purchases are fraught with psychological stigma,” Patel said in an interview. 

India’s National Family Planning Programme introduced condoms as a way to manage pregnancies in the late 1960s, and promoted them also as a method of preventing sexually transmitted infections in more recent decades. Still, of adult women in India aged 15-to-49 years in long-term partnerships, only 6 percent rely on male condoms for contraception, compared with 46 percent in Japan and 8.3 percent in China, according to United Nations data.

Key to improving the popularity of condoms is breaking the taboos that surround them, said Patel, adding that it’s too early to gauge what impact the Durex campaign will have.

Others are more skeptical.

“It’s just a marketing gimmick,” said Meena Seshu, founder of Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha, an HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and support organization, in Sangli city, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) west of Mumbai. “Whenever a company finds the market is slack, it comes out with such new products with newer justification. I am not sure whether the condom usage will increase or decrease by just calling condoms ‘Jeans,”’ Seshu said.

India’s contraceptives market will expand more than 17 percent a year on average through 2021, spurred by population growth and the high prevalence of HIV, research company Pharmaion said in a report last year.

(Adds market forecast in last paragraph.)
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