Why Utah’s condom campaign was shut down when other states embraced the risqué

(Photo courtesy of Converse County Public Health) A condom wrapper design that was featured as part of a safe sex campaign in Converse County, Wy.

Alaska did it. A county in Wyoming is doing it right now.

But when Utah health officials tried to bring risqué state-themed condoms here, the reaction was less than positive: Gov. Gary Herbert deemed them too provocative and ordered officials to stop handing them out. Health Department workers scrambled to gather as many of the distributed condoms as they could.

But in other places, the bawdy condoms were given a much warmer welcome.

The most recent campaign was in Converse County, which is the 13th largest county in Wyoming with a population of more than 13,000 — about the same population as Millard County — and covers an area just larger than Utah County.

There, public health officials last summer started a campaign called, “Ready to Ride Wyoming.” A dozen state-themed condom wrappers were distributed, including those featuring a scene of Devil’s Tower with the slogan “Protect Your Landmark,” an elk with the phrase “Rut Safely,” and the image of a bearded man wearing a cowboy hat alongside the words “Wyoming Men Keep it Covered.”

(Photo courtesy of Converse County Public Health) These condom wrapper designs were featured as part of a safe sex campaign in Converse County, Wy.

Converse County Nurse Manager Darcey Cowardin said they received only positive reviews.

“They definitely were something that people sought out,” she said Friday. “They wanted to have the complete set.”

Alaska officials embarked on a similar campaign in 2016, handing out condoms with sayings like “Spawn Safely” with an image of salmon and “Wear Your Rubbers” accompanied by rain boots.

Health department officials there did not return a request for comment this week. But a spokesman for the state’s Department of Health and Social Services told The Anchorage Daily News that the campaign was a hit. Orders for 20-packs went from about five a month to five a day.

“The condoms are going like wildfire, they are being ordered right and left,” said Susan Jones, HIV and STD program manager for Alaska. “People want them because they are so cool.”

Back in Wyoming, Cowardin said Converse County offered “limited releases” of the condoms, putting out the designs four at a time. When the campaign first started, Cowardin said county residents could get the sought-after condoms if they came to the public health building to be tested for sexually transmitted infections. The condoms were then released a week later to anyone who came to the health building to pick them up.

Cowardin said the condoms didn’t really entice more people to come get tested, but they were still sought-after in the community. The county ordered 12,000, she said, and have distributed about half of them over the past nine months.

She said the campaign has helped sparked conversations about safe sex.

“It becomes less of a taboo thing,” Cowardin said. “That was our entire goal, was more outreach. Our public has been very supportive of it.”

She said the designs were so popular, they were reprinted on coasters and handed out to local bars. Now, if you were to travel nearly 500 miles northwest from Salt Lake City and settle into a booth in a Converse County bar, you might set your beer down on a coaster featuring an oil rig and the words “Drill Safely.”

Cowardin said health officials had everyone sign off on the campaign — even the county commissioners — so there were no surprises.

That appears to not have been the case in Utah. After the governor ordered the Health Department to stop distributing condoms with suggestive Utah-themed packaging, health officials issued an apology and said the designs did not “go through necessary approved channels.”

But neither the Health Department nor the governor’s office would say Friday what steps were missed or who should have been informed before the 130,000 condoms were ordered as part of Utah’s “The H is for Human” campaign for HIV awareness.

The condom wrappers riff off various Utah memes, with labels such as “Greatest Sex on Earth,” “SL,UT,” an image of a highway sign that displays the number of miles to towns “Fillmore” and “Beaver,” and “This is the Place” over a drawing of a bed.

This undated photo provided by the Utah Department of Health shows condoms. The state of Utah is trying something new to fight HIV infections: handing out condoms with cheeky plays on state pride. (Utah Department of Health, via AP)

The state also suspended a related public awareness ad campaign and shut down its informational website on HIV while officials reviewed each component of the project.

The website had no prominent references to the condoms. Instead it contained a clinic directory, information about testing, treatment and prevention of HIV, and facts about how HIV is transmitted.

The sudden cut-off of the campaign has left a lot of questions about what the Utah Health Department plans to do next. The biggest question: What are they going to do with the banned condoms?

Jenny Johnson, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health, said they’ll release more information Tuesday.

The condoms were part of a federally funded campaign, which was to include billboards and social media advertising as well as the condoms and website, costing $353,000 in total, Johnson said. It’s not clear how much of that went toward the recalled condoms.

It’s not clear whether anyone in the Health Department has been disciplined over the controversy. Officials with both the department and the governor’s office said they couldn’t discuss personnel issues — but the governor’s office said no one has been fired.

After Herbert ordered the campaign to be pulled back, a handful of Utah legislators voiced their disapproval on social media.

Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, tweeted that the rollback was a mistake.

“Why are the fragile sensibilities of politicians a higher priority than protecting people from HIV and STIs?” she wrote. “FYI: the cost of treating HIV over a lifetime is over $300,000. Get over your blushing and do what works to help people protect themselves.”

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, responded: “I have mixed feelings about this. I’m not a prude, but anyone in HR would agree that these kinds of things would be inappropriate for inter office email.”

And Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, tweeted that the fallout was “literally unbelievable” and “absolutely infuriating.” He wrote that humor might make people more likely to use condoms and reduce their risks for HIV or sexually transmitted infections.

“It was a thoughtful campaign — nothing to apologize for!” he wrote. “Proud of this agency for attempting to make safe sex accessible, positive and stigma-free.”