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December 22, 2015

Message Man: Benjamin Sherman of Say It With a Condom

It’s one thing to make a great product, and quite another to get that product into the hands of the consumer. And that path between manufacturer and consumer is paved with one intention: communication. Advertising, branding, packaging, promotion, publicity, and sponsorships—they’re all part of that field of endeavor called marketing communications. The goal: Get your message to stand out amid the barrage of advertising in all media, not to mention the saturation from 24-hour news cycles and ubiquitous social media. How do you get people to listen? Benjamin Sherman believes he can help by putting out his clients’ messages on an everyday object that commands attention and makes you take notice of the product. The name of his company tells all: Say It With A Condom. The story of his company’s creation is a case study in creative marketing. While in school full time simultaneously pursuing a law degree and an MBA, Sherman was suddenly struck with the notion to create condoms with a message. “Maybe it’s the fact that I was an ardent Obama supporter,” he said. Calling his company Practice Safe Policy, Sherman dashed off to snap up some domain names. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, Somebody else is probably having this same idea at this exact moment.’ … I bought ObamaCondoms.com and McCainCondoms.com just in case,” he recalled. After designing the product and a website where he could sell it, Sherman sent out a press release in March of 2008. “I went for a run around the reservoir [in New York’s Central Park] and I came back to my phone ringing non stop—I think it was the AP. ... And then CNN called, and FOX showed up. And that was on a Thursday. That next day we were all over the media and every web page was linking to us. … That was where it all began.” Offering condoms to both sides of the political divide—an Obama condom with the slogan “The Ultimate Stimulus Package” and McCain rubbers that said “Old But Not Expired”—Sherman started with online sales but soon expanded his horizons. That year he attended the AVN Novelty Expo and obtained high volume distribution. And he also found a way to take advantage of his city’s busy streets. “For the next three years we put together a team of 40 people who went out and told people to “remember the election with their next erection.” “We sold condoms on the streets of New York in Times Square for three years.” However, hassles plagued the team. Working without a general vending license (“because the only way to get a general vendor’s license now is to be a disabled veteran—the wait list has been shut down for 20 years”), his team sold the condoms “under the idea that they were political merchandise, covered by the First Amendment. If you’re vending books, periodicals, posters, pins buttons, shirts, it’s considered First Amendment merchandise and we got that in writing from the Department of Consumer Affairs.” The NYPD took a different view, and twice the issue was brought before New York courts. First the condom purveyors lost, then they won. “But unfortunately, the NYPD can choose to follow the win or the loss,” Sherman said. “I just took it in stride and took a break to develop the concept for Say It With a Condom. I went full speed ahead with this concept at the end of 2011.” Sherman recalled, “I always thought it would be kind of cool if people could create their own [condoms] and share their messages.” When he launched Say It With a Condom he went back to his roots with the Romney condom (“Great For Any Position”) as well as a more ambivalent Obama condom (“Won’t Break As Easily As His Promises”). The creativity sparked from there, with the addition of other themed condoms wrapped up in funny sayings, tag-lines and pop culture references. Rather than the streets of New York, the condoms are now sold at SayItWithACondom.com. “I love our website,” Sherman said. “It’s a place where you can see our latest and greatest designs. Our condoms are constantly being liked and shared on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. We’ve got something for everybody, whether it’s Valentine’s Day or it’s a bachelorette party looking for some animal-print condoms, or people who are celebrating 420—we’ve got a condom that says ‘Toke It Before You Poke It.’ … We’ve got something for everyone. “We promote safety through creativity, but I think a lot of people who buy the funny ones are really into it for the joke,” Sherman said. “But the bigger part of our business eventually showed itself: utilizing the condom as a promotional marketing tool.” Now, clients come to Sherman looking for a customized product that serves their own purposes. “They see that the condom is the vehicle in which they can convey a message to the audience—whether that message is a brand, a product, a service or an event, they see that they can get more mileage from a condom than a postcard or a flyer or another sort of marketing collateral.” Last January, Sherman came back to the AVN Novelty Expo. “I went with the idea that I wanted to relaunch my company to the adult market and show people what I’d been up to for the last three years, and I couldn’t think of a better platform than ANE to do that. It succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. There are a lot of people I’m very close with who have known me for seven years and came to me and said, ‘Wow you’ve really figured it out—I’m proud of you.’” The company has come a long way from its beginnings. “From the retailers to the home party people to all the distributors, the great thing is we can play in all those fields. Even though we’re three years old as Say It With A Condom, we’re very much a startup, so we’re very agile. We’re creating this new platform to advertise on, and we’re able to pivot very quickly. If we say, ‘Hey we need this type of packaging option to promote this type of client, we can do that. … We’re a marketing firm, not a condom company.” As to the actual condoms, Sherman said, “We do get our condoms for an OEM out of Thailand. They’re all FDA-approved in premium latex with a four- to five-year shelf life. Lubricated or un-lubricated, depending on the client wants.” But what’s outside is the real product: “What our packaging and our platform allows you to do is to deliver your message.” How did Sherman become a marketing guru? For one thing, his parents were both in sales. “I always wanted to create my own work. I didn’t want somebody else to tell me what I’m worth or when to leave the office or what I could amount to.” Asked what he did before starting hawking rubbers, Sherman said, “It’s almost hard to remember. I used to be in cosmetics. I used to sell makeup and skin care, and I was really good at sales and marketing and getting people to buy things. “For me, what I’m very fortunate to have is not just the combination of sales ability but the marketing side of it as well. I can look at something … and find a hundred different ways to talk about it, promote it, create a new product line, and just grow a business.” Some of the messages that Sherman communicates are much more than entertaining jokes or commercial branding. “LGBT awareness is something we take a big part in. We actually have a whole line of condoms that speak to awareness of the LGBT community,” he said. Among these are such slogans as “Wear with Pride” and “Closets are for Clothes.” “But perhaps our biggest venture into creating awareness for a group is about sexual assault. Last year we launched a line of consent-themed condoms that advocated for asking before engaging in any kind of sexual activity. We did that in March and we launched with five different kind of condoms.” Emblazoned with slogans such as “Consent Is Hot, Assault Is Not,” the condoms attracted media coverage, and now, Sherman said, “universities and domestic violence centers around the world carry these condoms as a way to call attention to a message that needs to be heard.” These “Consent Condoms” are something Sherman is passionate about, and it’s certainly been an issue in the news since a federal investigation in Title IX violations on 74 college campuses began last year. “Columbia, USC, Harvard, Yale, Amherst—these schools are all under investigation for violating Title 9, to provide a safe place for the student body. So we were at the forefront of being able to provide a tool to stimulate the conversation. We’ve increased our product fivefold and we now have 25 different consent-themed designs that help advocate for sexual assault awareness. … “The numbers are shocking—one in four women will be assaulted in their lifetime before the age of 24, and if you include men then it’s one in five. Do I think condoms are going to stop it? No—but listen, if you’re going to engage in sexual activity you should be responsible and have a condom. Why not also include a message about consent at the same time?” In addition to universities, Say It With A Condom works with many other outreach organizations, from AIDS Project Los Angeles to the government of Alaska to other safer sex programs. All these organizations have condom distribution programs, and by working with Sherman, they can also deliver a message with every condom they hand out. “That’s the goal when we work with a lot of these health-related organizations,” he said. “We deliver a message, and oftentimes with a smile. For more information, go to SayItWithACondom.com.

 
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