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March 3, 2009

Walking into the FamilyMart near my old office, I was quite surprised by the display my Chinese former colleagues and I discovered right next to the front counter. Boldly placed between the two main cash registers was not just a huge assortment of condoms; but also a Durex branded sex toy for women under the brand name “Play.” Furthermore, the sign next to the Durex products stated that they were all sold out.

Needless to say I was quite shocked for a variety of reasons. First of all there was the prominent display at the very front of this high traffic FamilyMart convenience store, which would would certainly never fly in the U.S., because it is could clearly be seen by minors. And here I was in Shanghai, China, in a society generally regarded as being extremely conservative regarding sex, especially when it comes to women. And yet these sex toys were being sold for all to see. 

Secondly, I was certainly surprised that Durex’s “Play” was selling so well in close proximity to a very high-end shopping area of Shanghai, near Plaza 66. Call me uptight, but I had a hard time imagining a young, middle-to-upper class woman actually buying such a product in an open environment. But here the sign said sold out. Since FamilyMart is open 24 hours a day, I wondered whether women came late at night to make their secret purchases.

But after discussion with my Chinese colleagues in the public relations field, we realized that Durex’s marketing in such an open way was a stroke of genius, demonstrating their real understanding of Chinese women. Durex took away the stigma by selling these products in such a free, innocuous way at the front of FamilyMart stores rather than the backs of seedy sex shops. Also, what could be more innocent than buying a product named “Play,” brought to you by a trusted Western brand like Durex. The amount of research and thinking that must have gone into this product launch, from start to finish, is astounding.

The next element that blew my mind was the price; playing with the “Play” toy is not cheap, especially by China standards. In China where one is considered to have entered the middle class with a monthly wage of RMB 5,000, at a cost of RMB 249, the Durex “Play” is an expensive toy. But apparently women in Shanghai are more than willing to pay such a steep price.

Later I decided to check out whether other FamilyMart outlets would also sell the Durex “Play” in the same way. I was not disappointed. Pictured above is the display with the exact same arrangement at the FamilyMart that opened recently near my apartment. There must still be some stigma attached, however, because I was chased out of the store by a clerk working there while taking the above photo and this one below of the exterior of FamilyMart. This was the only part of the Durex “Play” experience that did not surprise me; I actually expected to be chased.

While shopping at French supermarket Carrefour today, whose stores are also very widespread throughout China, I decided to check out whether Durex’s “Play” would also be on sale there but was somewhat surprised that they were unavailable. Apparently FamilyMart must be the ideal sales location for this brilliantly marketed product.

5 Responses to “Durex Breaking Sexual Taboos in FamilyMart Shanghai”

  1. Oliver Dawson Says:

    Thanks, I really enjoyed reading your article. After working in China for the last three months, I can relate to your comments, China has the ability to astound one daily!
    I have been setting up a JV, in the manufacturing sector in a town called Fuyang, about an hour’s drive south of Hangzhou. We build luxury yachts for the charter market in the US and Caribbean.
    My fiancé came out two weeks ago for a short trip to see what all the fuss was about; she quickly found out how difficult China can actually be when you don’t understand the culture or language., I organized a nice trip into the country (as a good fiancé’ does), so that Janene could tell all at home that China was in fact not just a confused nation stuck between USA in the 50’s and being the hungry giant it actually is.
    We started our journey to “Yellow Mountain” with a four bus ride from Hangzhou, about two hours into the journey the driver stopped so we could all go to the WC (rest rooms). Janene and I had finished our supply of refreshments and duly decided to go and see what a little country fuel station shop had to offer in the way of refreshments. We found all the normal Chinese goodies, chicken feet, dried fish amongst a host of other lovely smelling treats; we picked some water from the fridge (which didn’t work) and made our way to the till.
    To my dismay, at the counter was a rack of condoms which was still manageable, but next to that was a selection of pornographic videos; unbelievably graphically descriptive covers that did not make use of even a star to cover anything up. Janene and I had a good laugh, paid for our water and proceeded with our trip.

    What got me thinking after some time was exactly what you said. It astounded me that a seemingly conservative place like China, might not actually be so far behind the rest of the world as some might think. I also think the perception the rest of the world has of China, from time to time might play into their hands.

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