“The Governor understands the importance of the Utah Department of Health conducting a campaign to educate Utahns about HIV prevention,” a spokeswoman with Herbert’s office said in a statement shared with The Washington Post. “He does not, however, approve the use of sexual innuendo as part of a taxpayer-funded campaign, and our office has asked the department to rework the campaign’s branding.”
The Utah-themed condoms, which were paid for with a federal grant, mixed local in-jokes with juvenile humor, presenting “SL,UT” as shorthand for Salt Lake City, Utah. One depicted a road sign listing the distances to Fillmore and Beaver, while another replaced the state’s tourism slogan, “Greatest Snow on Earth,” with “Greatest Sex on Earth.” Others played on Utah’s outdoorsy reputation — for instance, pairing “Enjoy Your Mountin’” with a picture of a mountain.
“Uintah Sex?” asked another, borrowing the name of one of the state’s eastern counties.
Before the governor shut down the condom giveaway, Utah health officials told the Salt Lake Tribune that the goofy puns were designed to spark a conversation around sexual health. “If the condoms are fun, relatable, sex positive — people are more apt to talk about them, which we’ve already seen,” Erin Fratto, an official with the Utah Department of Health’s Prevention Treatment and Care Program, told the paper.
In addition to promoting safe sex, the jokey condom packages encouraged people to visit a website with information about HIV prevention and treatment. (In 2015, Utah ranked 36th out of 50 states when it came to the number of HIV diagnoses, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.) Officials told KUTV that they specifically hoped to reach people “who are historically harder to reach through traditional communication channels,” and were working with volunteers to distribute the condoms at bars and university clinics as well as local health departments.
The idea was modeled off successful campaigns in other conservative Western states, KUTV reported. In 2013, state health officials in Alaska began handing out condoms with slogans like “Harness Your Husky” and “Spawn Safely.” A similar promotion in Wyoming featured taglines like “Drill Safely.” But the same approach didn’t go over so well in deep-red Utah, which has a predominantly Mormon population.
One volunteer, Michael Sanders, told the station that he had been delivering the condoms to bars and LGBTQ centers on Wednesday when he got an email telling him to stop right away. When he called the governor’s office to find out what was going on, he said, “I was told it was an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”
Late Wednesday night, just hours after several news stories about the condom promotion appeared, the Utah Department of Health issued a statement apologizing for the “offensive packaging” and saying that it regretted “the lewd nature of the branding.” The condoms “did not go through necessary approval channels,” the agency said, and the groups helping to hand them out had been told to stop immediately.
“We remain committed to running a campaign to help in the prevention of HIV and intend to do so in a manner that better respects taxpayer dollars, and our role as a government agency,” the statement concluded.
Utahns reacting to the about-face on social media were left with one burning question: What was going to happen to all the remaining condoms? And what would it take to acquire one?
“If you know anything about the ‘Streisand Effect,’ those Utah-centric condoms that are out on the free market are probably collector’s items now,” tweeted Fox 13 reporter Ben Winslow.