Marketing Contraception and Control

The PillBy Agata Ignaciuk, University of Granada

Since its first commercialization in the early 1960s, the contraceptive pill has been the subject of complex and contradictory scientific, religious and social debates to an extent incomparable with any other pharmaceutical product. A gendered drug per excellence, the pill has been simultaneously embraced as a much needed effective female birth control method, separating sex and reproduction, and opposed for its dangerous side-effects and contribution to the already excessive medicalization of female bodies.

Much has been written about the introduction and circulation of this drug, especially in the national contexts of West Germany, Britain, France, Canada and the US. In my own research I aim to complete these stories through visual and material evidence collected from pill advertising in Western countries. I am particularly interested in how national differences in the practice of gynaecology and the legal status of contraception affected transnational pill marketing practices. While in the US and West Germany there were no federal restrictions on contraception during the 1960s, its trade and advertising were banned in Spain till 1978, and contraceptive advice in France was legally restricted to married women until the late 1960s. Also in Canada, Criminal Code banned sale and advertisement of contraception till 1969. Similarly, the shape of gynaecological professions and practices has also differed substantially across these countries.

Advertising campaigns for prescription drugs aimed at doctors, were and continue to be designed (as first suggested by the historian of medicine, Ludmilla Jordanova) to promote and sell not only the actual pharmaceutical products themselves, but also gendered, raced and classed ideas about women’s bodies and health, together with particular visions of a patient-doctor relationship. The historians Johnatan Metzl, Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, Irina Singh, Heather Molynaux, Ally Haggett, Carrie Eisert, Ulrike Thoms, and Lisa Malich have all made outstanding contributions to the analysis of gendered dimensions of pharmaceutical advertising, especially of psychotropic drugs and, indeed, oral contraceptives.

In early pill adverts during the 1960s aimed at the US and Western Europe, pharmaceutical companies were cautious to frame contraception as an essential ingredient for the well-being of a white, middle class family: the potential the pill had to enhance a woman’s sexual autonomy was troubling. The companies had to approach doctors and gynaecologists carefully, to convince or reassure them that family planning counselling was a legitimate part of their medical practice. This was achieved through a variety of visual and textual strategies, the aim of which was to promote the doctor’s authority as an indispensable intermediary, a gatekeeper to effective birth control.  I will focus here on discussing one such visual strategy: the use of representations of doctors in pill advertising.

Anovlar, booklet for doctors, Austria, 1965. Source: Schering Archives, Bayer AG.

Anovlar, booklet for doctors, Austria, 1965.
Source: Schering Archives, Bayer AG.

In one of the first advertising campaigns for Anovlar aimed at the West German and Austrian market, the West German company Schering – the leading European manufacturer of the pill – employed photographic representations of a conversation in a doctor’s surgery between the practitioner and a mother of two young children. A wedding ring – a symbol of marriage and, indirectly, legitimate sexual relations – was strategically placed on the seated woman’s hand encircling her baby. The doctor, standing over the patient, appeared to be patiently explaining the properties of Anovlar, while a toddler poked his lab coat pocket. The text read “Two children so narrowly spaced have been simply too much for me”.

Throughout the 1960s, similar photographic representations of medical professionals – as wise, compassionate advisers of married mothers – were frequently used by most oral contraceptive manufacturers for adverts placed in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, one of the main US journals for the discipline. Texts that accompanied the images of middle-aged doctors often appealed directly to control over women’s bodies, with slogans such as “For better and for worse? Often for better when the physician takes the initiative in overcoming fear of unwanted pregnancy with Norinyl” (Syntext, 1964) or “Today … at any time in a woman’s marriage… you can help her PLAN FOR A LIFETIME” (Mead Johnson, 1967) (my emphasis).

While in the US such representations and slogans were used into the early 1970s, in West Germany – as German historian Ulrike Thoms argues in a recently published book chapter– they were redundant by the mid 1960s, having fulfilled their purpose: the majority of German doctors had accepted their role as pill prescribers, initially to married women, eventually to single women as well.

In France such representations were unusual throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Another German scholar, Lisa Malich, attributes this lack of representations of doctors to the heterogeneity of the French gynaecological profession, which included a significant proportion of women practitioners. The white-middle-aged male figure, therefore, did not possess the same “advantage” of identification it had in the US or West Germany.

Similarly, in Spain, photographs of doctors rarely appeared in pill adverts, despite the profession being almost entirely masculinized till the 1970s. The national branch of Schering AG was one of the few pharmaceutical companies operating on the Spanish market that opted to use photographic representations of doctors in pill adverts during the mid-1970s. Although the pill had circulated in Spain since the mid-1960s, due to legal restrictions imposed by the national-Catholic, military dictatorship, it was officially prescribed as a therapeutic drug for menstrual irregularities. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, Spanish women were increasingly using the pill as a contraceptive, especially from the 1970s onward. In 1975 – the year dictator Franco died and the democratic transition began – Schering launched an unusual advert for Neogynona. Five professionals, all middle-aged men in suits with the central figure smoking a cigar, are described in the heading as “the satisfied”. Although the smaller text below specifies this satisfaction has derived from finally being able to “have a perfect oral contraceptive for all women”, I cannot help but see other satisfaction-related connotations in the main heading, including the sexual one.