What's the best-selling condom in America?

How popular culture gets popular.
Sept. 29 2006 12:32 PM

The Other Trojan War

What's the best-selling condom in America?

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Given the equine subterfuge that precipitated the sack of Troy, Trojan condoms are curiously named—deception is not a quality one typically looks for in a prophylactic. Consumers, however, don't seem to mind: Trojans reign supreme in America's nightstand drawers and billfolds. The various types of Trojan—Ultra Ribbed, Magnum XL, Warm Sensations—account for 70.5 percent of condom sales in drugstores, giving the brand more than four times the market share of runner-up Durex.

The brand's longevity is its chief strength, because when you're selling condoms, name recognition is everything. Cheapskates may be content to buy CVS Allergy Relief Tablets in lieu of Claritin, but even the stingiest shoppers are reluctant to gamble on unfamiliar birth control. So, consumers stick with the same brands their parents used—and in the case of Trojan, which debuted in 1920, the one their grandparents used. Newer brands like Trustex and Hot Rod have their fans, but they're minnows compared to mighty Trojan.

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Trojan condoms were the brainchild of a canny Presbyterian from upstate New York named Merle Leland Youngs. When Youngs moved to New York City in the second decade of the 20th century, the condom trade was decidedly seedy, with fly-by-night manufacturers peddling dodgy wares. The Comstock Law of 1873 forbade the sale of birth control, so condoms were instead sold as protection against disease. Still, many pharmacists were loath to stock a product associated with sexual vice, and consumers often had to buy their condoms in the backrooms of bars.

Youngs realized that condoms, for all their supposed shadiness, were a potentially lucrative business for a morally upstanding entrepreneur like himself. During World War I, America's condom-makers flourished by selling their wares to European armies; the puritanical American Expeditionary Force, on the other hand, refused to furnish its soldiers with condoms and was in turn plagued by an astronomical number of venereal infections. Public-health officials were concerned that returning soldiers would spread syphilis far and wide, and Youngs correctly sensed that condoms would become more socially acceptable in the face of a potential epidemic. Indeed, the very year that World War I ended, a New York judge ruled in favor of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, allowing her to distribute information on contraceptives without fear of arrest.

Youngs knew, however, that condoms needed a new image in order to thrive. He countered the product's dicey reputation by stressing manufacturing standards and building a state-of-the-art factory in Trenton, N.J., that produced condoms of uniform quality. He also favored austere packaging emblazoned with nothing but a Trojan helmet, a symbol meant to connote protection and virility. Youngs' artwork was far less erotic than that of his primary rival, Jules Schmid, a onetime sausage-maker who'd started making lamb-gut condoms in the 1880s; by the time Trojan debuted, he was manufacturing rubber condoms under the Ramses and Sheik brand names. Schmid's packages often featured romantic Egyptian or Arab images.

Pharmacists favored Youngs' approach, not least because the packaging gave them plausible deniability should a local moralist accuse them of promoting sin. Consumers didn't yet ask for condoms by brand name, so they simply accepted whatever the pharmacist handed them; more often than not, the customer got a Trojan.

Youngs Rubber, meanwhile, sued a company making Trojan knockoffs, a legal maneuver designed to underscore its commitment to quality. More important, the company lobbied state and local governments to enact laws restricting the sale of condoms to pharmacies alone. Since Trojans had become the preference of pharmacists, the brand was guaranteed a virtual monopoly in markets where these laws were passed.

The pharmacy-only laws also allowed Youngs Rubber to circumvent the refusal of mass-market publications to run condom ads. The company instead focused its promotional budget on trade journals for pharmacists, which accepted ads emphasizing Trojans' safety and efficacy.

Trojan's drugstore supremacy began to fray in the 1970s, as laws loosened in the wake of the sexual revolution and condoms moved from behind-the-counter cabinets to the aisles. Youngs' company, renamed Youngs Drug Products, also had to contend with competition from multinational corporations; Ansell-Americas, for example, then the maker of LifeStyles condoms, was owned by Pacific Dunlop of Australia. Ansell, which had formerly concentrated on Sun Belt markets, used its parent company's financial resources to muscle onto Youngs' drugstore turf. In 1975, Trojans accounted for 56 percent of the pharmacy market it had formerly dominated.

Ansell actually tried to purchase Youngs in 1984, but the Justice Department's antitrust division nixed the deal, arguing that the combined company would have too much control over condom prices—especially those charged to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Youngs was instead bought by Carter-Wallace Inc., which sold its consumer-products arm to Church & Dwight, home to the Brillo and Arm & Hammer brands, in 2001 for $739 million.

Being part of a conglomerate has helped Trojan compete, since today's sales are strongly influenced by direct-to-consumer ads and placement in chain drugstores. Church & Dwight has stressed innovation, too, in order to take advantage of the increasing demand for condoms meant to enhance intercourse, rather than merely prevent disease and pregnancy. One of the brand's most successful launches in recent years, for example, has been Trojan Mint Tingle. The pleasure-oriented Trojan Vibrating Ring, meanwhile, is the newest addition to the brand's lineup, although killjoy laws in Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, and five other states prohibit its sale within their respective borders.

Yet Trojans remain America's favorite condoms first and foremost because of Merle Youngs' genius. Reliability, rather than enhanced pleasure, will always be the attribute consumers most desire in their chosen prophylactic. English majors who've done a close reading of the Homer may deem the brand's name incongruous, but they're far outnumbered by consumers for whom Trojan is to condoms as Kleenex is to tissues. * And when your brand has become synonymous with its product category, it's likely to stay that way for a long, long time.

Correction, Oct. 2, 2006: This piece originally suggested that the Trojan horse episode is described in Homer's Iliad. The incident is detailed in the Odyssey. Return to the corrected sentence.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.