The Pill Killer
Can a new ad make a contraceptive vaginal insert seem cool?
The Spot: "Tired of your old birth-control routine?" a voice-over asks. Synchronized swimmers ring the edge of a round pool, moving in unison and chanting the days of the week in turn. They let out sighs of frustration after each repetition, exhausted by the tedium."Maybe it's time to break free from the pack with NuvaRing," the announcer suggests. One swimmer jumps out of the pool, shakes her hair out of her bathing cap, and tears off part of her suit, turning her modest one-piece into a sexy bikini. She lounges beneath an umbrella while the other swimmers keep at it, then heads to the hot tub with some girlfriends as the voice-over chatters about blood clots. "Say good-bye to the old song-and-dance and hello to NuvaRing," the announcer concludes. (Click here to watch the ad.)
The genius of this ad is that it makes something as simple as swallowing a pill once a day seem arduous, old-fashioned, and quaint. The spot plugs NuvaRing, a contraceptive vaginal insert. Instead of taking a pill daily, you wear the NuvaRing—which uses hormones similar to those in the pill—for three weeks, take a week off, and then insert a fresh ring. No longer will you have to take time out of your busy schedule—or your afternoons hanging poolside—to pop a pill, the ad suggests.
NuvaRing's ad isn't the first to present the traditional pill as a tiny, pastel-colored ball and chain. One birth-control patch, Ortho Evra, used the slogan "On your body, off your mind." But the synchronized swimming spot, which uses playful imagery and a catchy days-of-the-week chant in place of a heavy-handed slogan, is insidiously persuasive. Although taking the pill is not at all hard, this ad had me briefly pondering making the switch myself.
Part of the spot's appeal lies in its light tone. The makers of condoms and Viagra have long used tongue-in-cheek humor to make the hard sell. But women's birth-control spots have gone the earnest route, showing women constantly preoccupied with—and burdened by—the pill. An ad for a pill called Yaz blasts a peppy cover of the '80s Scandal hit "Goodbye to You" and promises that Yaz will relieve menstruating women of fatigue, cramps, irritability, and acne. Another Sex and the City-inspired Yaz spot shows sophisticated, cocktail-sipping women talking solemnly about the pill's pros. The commercial ditches the usual side-effects voice-over, instead enlisting a lovely brunette to deliver lines like, "DRSP is a different kind of hormone that may increase potassium, so you shouldn't take Yaz if you have liver, kidney, or adrenal disease. …" It doesn't quite click—why would this woman warn her twentysomething friends that women over 35 shouldn't smoke on the pill? And why are her friends nodding intently instead of downing their drinks while their eyes glaze over?
The NuvaRing commercial, by contrast, uses lighthearted details to suggest that birth control can be a no-sweat part of your life. It shrewdly portrays the pill as an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, something out of your mother's or even grandmother's youth, like a one-piece bathing costume, a swim cap, even synchronized swimming, an activity that prizes conformity over individualism. In an animated version of the ad, the pool deck even appears to be made of checkered linoleum, like a '50s-era kitchen. The NuvaRing, on the other hand, is the choice of the freedom-loving, loose-haired, midriff-baring, sunglasses-wearing girl who flirts with the waiter proffering drinks and has her own style and idea of fun.
Of course, the commercial has a point that it's important—and sometimes difficult—to take traditional birth control pills with clockwork regularity. Women risk getting pregnant if they fail to follow the pill's rather stringent instructions. It's not hard to skip a day or two, fail to take it at the same time every day, forget to start a new pack, or neglect to use backup contraception when taking antibiotics or other medications that can reduce the pill's efficacy. Planned Parenthood's Web site notes that taken as directed, fewer "than 1 out of 100 women will get pregnant each year," while "[a]bout 8 out of 100 women will get pregnant each year if they don't always take the pill each day as directed."
What the NuvaRing ad fails to acknowledge is that using the ring properly may not be easy, either. When you take the pill daily, you get into a rhythm and associate it with, say, brushing your teeth or going to bed. Remembering to remove the NuvaRing every third week and replace it every fourth seems more difficult. Are users supposed to associate these changes with the appearance of the full moon? The arrival of the new Real Simple? Writing a check for the cell phone bill? Setting an alarm in Outlook might work, but it's not always convenient to change your vaginal ring when you happen to be checking your e-mail. NuvaRing's manufacturer does nod to this problem on its Web site, offering small timers for users to carry around with them. But how are you supposed to remember to check the timer?
Grade: B+ The ad's smartest move is glossing over the ick factor of the contraceptive device itself. It doesn't mention how you insert it, how it affects your period, whether it can fall out, and what to do if that happens. Those details are left to the Web site and your doctor. One fairly alarming warning: "NuvaRing® can slip out while you're removing a tampon, straining during a bowel movement, or during intercourse." Maybe there's something to be said for sticking with the old-fashioned.
Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project from Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that covers emerging technologies and their implications for society and policy.
Photograph of NuvaRing by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images.