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Making and marketing condoms

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20/10/2016

By | The Researcher’s View

The 1960s was a good time to own Britain’s biggest condom factory, but the London Rubber Company (LRC) was not without its problems. Despite record sales and increased condom use, there was a distinctly oestrogenic blot on the horizon.

The oral contraceptive Pill had drifted into the condom’s orbit and blithely encroached upon its market. British women had been using the Pill since 1961 and everyone was talking about it. But there were other adversaries in the contraceptive trade. A small proportion of couples used the diaphragm, a female barrier method, which wasn’t so bad for business because London Rubber made both diaphragms and the spermicidal jelly they were smothered with.

diaphragm and spermicidal gel

Diaphragm and spermicidal gel. Still from ‘According to Plan‘.

But the birth control method most favoured by British couples was coitus interruptus or ‘withdrawal’. Horrifyingly, this practice didn’t require any contraceptive related purchases whatsoever. This was a deplorable state of affairs. It was time for LRC to make a marketing film.

Pros and cons of the 'withdrawal' method of contraception

Pros and cons of the ‘withdrawal’ method of contraception. Still from ‘According to Plan

The London Foundation for Marriage Education was one of several front organisations established by the LRC, and ‘According to Plan’ was one of a handful of short films ostensibly produced by the Foundation. These trade films were used to circulate valuable sales messages in lieu of brand advertising in the mainstream media.

According to Plan’ was shipped around to social organisations, health visitors, nurses, midwives and the like. Combined with question and answer sessions, screenings served as propaganda events to spread the good word of Durex contraceptives and sundries. The ultimate aim was to steer everybody who should be having sex – thoughtful married heterosexual couples wanting just the right number of children – away from unsatisfactory and inferior contraceptive methods and toward the only logical and correct option: the condom.

According to Plan

Title still from ‘According to Plan‘ displayed in the digital viewer.

If the film is to be believed, other methods just didn’t cut it. The ‘safe period’ was rather chancy, and the long-term effects of the Pill were unknown (a fair point in the 1960s). Both of these methods would have you sitting around filling in calendars, and nobody needs that hassle. As for ‘withdrawal’ as a means of avoiding conception? Well, if you want to do yourself and your partner grievous psychological harm lasting the rest of your born days, go ahead! Diaphragms are OK, but, Heavens! Don’t they look time consuming and messy!

calendar

Calendar for use with the Pill or ‘safe period’ methods of contraception. Still from ‘According to Plan

All told, it’s best to stick with the condom, which, let’s face it, doesn’t hurt anyone and always, always works. To what degree ‘According to Plan’ achieved the aim of condom conversion and/or condom-user retention is unknown. The LRC’s film unit was certainly busy: in 1968 it presented 1,525 screenings from its portfolio, including versions in Urdu.

For the 21st Century researcher, however, this film is a sparkling primary source packed with information on how the LRC pitched its own contraceptives and fought against its competitors. It was produced with a great deal of thought, care and downright market intelligence. Note how it picks off its rivals one by one, and how valuable contraceptive information is interspersed with scenes of happy family life!

Mother, father and newborn baby

Still from ‘According to Plan

Being something of a fan (I am, after all, writing my PhD thesis on the London Rubber Company), my favourite part of the film is the manufacturing sequence (at 07:17), which I can only describe as a sort of celebratory industrial poetry – something akin to Fernand Léger’s ‘Ballet Mécanique’. The montage showcases LRC’s beautifully efficient state-of-the-art automated latex dipping plant in Chingford, North London. Production at London Rubber ran 24 hours per day, and ladies from the packing line got to take home free jars of unpacked condoms.

condom factory

Worker on the condom assembly line at the London Rubber Factory. Still from ‘According to Plan

The dipping system was designed completely in-house and was continually improved and updated. The automated lines were sadly broken down and shipped out of the country when Chingford manufacturing ended in the 1990s, so being able to see the production really is a rare treat. It is clear that London Rubber was very proud of its technical achievements.

condom production ine

Condom production at the London Rubber Company. Still from ‘According to Plan

According to Plan’ won a Silver Award from the British Medical Association, which is why the print was saved and ended up at the Wellcome Library. It has been digitized, and is now available for all to enjoy online. How happy the defunct London Rubber would have been!

The film is best viewed in conjunction with ‘Learning to Live’, its sister film, which is available in the BFI’s ‘The Birds and the Bees‘ box set. The two films were often presented together, sometimes with a free tube of spermicidal jelly thrown in!

Author

Jessica Borge is a PhD candidate in the department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. At the time of writing she is completing her thesis, “The London Rubber Company, the Condom and the Pill: 1932-1965”, an interdisciplinary history of corporate and marketing strategy in the British contraceptive marketplace.

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