Yesterday after a lavish launch party in New York on Monday night, Swedish sex toy brand Lelo launched their Hex condom - a product they had been promoting for months through social media advertising and their e-newsletter as “The World’s First Re-engineered condom.”
When I first read that they were designing a condom, I knew there were many paths and opportunities that Lelo could take that would push them to the fore and further establish themselves as a leading sexual wellness brand. I began to fantasize about what I would do if I were in charge at Lelo and had access to their large, Lelo-sized budget.
I began to conjure up images of working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help some of their grant recipients from 2013 get FDA approval and bring their condom designs to market. Maybe they could team up with UNAIDS to help promote and execute their 2016-2021 strategy. Perhaps they could then follow suit with brands like Sir Richards, Sustain, and FairSquared who have all taken the ethical/ vegan/ or fair-trade route. I somehow suspected with a name like Hex, that the counter-intuitive honeycomb shape would be incorporated into the design somehow, but I could forgive them that if their messaging was clear and positive. Sadly though, I also suspected that that wouldn’t be the case.
The reason for my skepticism has come from a long line of Lelo flops, miscalculations, and disappointments. It’s painful to watch a company I’ve loved for years, who built their empire on a strong foundation of beautiful, functional vibrators - ones which still outsell much of the competition today - squander its reputation on gimmicky gadgets and bad, sometimes even misogynistic marketing.
Some may say that it started a long time ago when Lelo introduced 24-karat gold plated sex toys. However I’d argue that manufacturing that range was well worth it for all the coverage they received when Beyonce allegedly bought one from Babeland in New York. For me rage and disappointment started a few years back when they released a toy called Ida. An internal/external remote controlled vibrator, the Ida was being heavily pushed as a couples’ toy. But after having seen it, I vowed never to stock it in my shop for fear that every single one would be returned with the message “This isn’t a sex toy. It’s a vibrating door handle!”
Lelo later introduced the Ora, a now infamous oral sex simulator, which was not only loud but it’s main oral-sex-simulating component - a rotating, silicone-covered nub - would get stuck the second it came in contact with any part of the body. I have yet to meet 1 person who enjoyed the Ora. In fact, presumably realising it was so bad, they felt compelled to release a version 2.0 less than a year after the original was launched.
Then followed the Hula beads - the €179 remote controlled kegel beads; the Wave range of vibrators, which promised to give a “come hither” motion, but I just found to be incredibly unpleasant and almost painful; an accompanying film project called “Beyond the Wave” starring Caspar Van Dien, which there is no longer any mention of on Lelo’s web site apart from 1 press release (that I had to search for) from when it was announced the film would be shown at Cannes.
After this Lelo built up hype and then released a number of male-centric toys and accessories including a penis tuxedo (I’m not even joking) and a cock-ring which was marketed specifically to bankers and came with cuff-links and a money clip engraved with the phrase “Always Be Closing.” Apart from the amusing fact that Glengarry Glen Ross was about real estate agents not bankers, the campaign for said cock ring was nothing short of a nightmare. It’s promotional video is a fast-paced slideshow that shows a faceless male protagonist in a business suit enjoying a lavish, party lifestyle complete with popping bottles of champagne, boning hot faceless women, and getting into a fist fight before being thrown out of the club.
From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like Lelo are really struggling to reinvent themselves and decide what their brand values are, troubling since this global brand was founded nearly 15 years ago. On the one hand you have these couples-focused toys with all their remote controls and vibrators that are meant to be worn during intercourse. On the other hand, they’re also trying to bring in the single, narcissistic tech-bro demographic. Even with the Pino, the cock-ring for bankers, they have changed tack since its launch, now referring to it as a “couples ring.”
To make matters worse, these launches are happening on the regular. Instead of taking their time and investing in R&D, they churn out products every few months. As a small, independent retailer, I have to judge whether or not a product is going to sell based on its functionality and price point. I’ve passed up on a lot of these new toys, especially since last Fall when they raised their wholesale prices. To stay competitive, I’ve had to drastically lower my margin, which means if I am going to stock a product, I have to know 100% that it’s going to be worth it to my customer. Ireland is a very small country, and people like to talk if they feel that a company are taking the piss.
This brings us back to Hex. I had such high hopes and yet knew in the pit of my stomach that I’d be left disappointed. Finally yesterday morning, I awoke to the news that the spokesman for Hex condoms, of ALL the potential excellent brand ambassadors out there, of ALL the people in the world come to think of it… they chose Charlie Sheen. Yes Charlie Sheen. The same Charlie Sheen who has a history of domestic violence, drug & alcohol abuse, and who is currently under investigation for stalking and threatening to kill his former fiancee. Just let that sit with you for a moment.
Then we move onto the product itself. Bryan Menegus from Gizmodo was at the launch Monday night and wrote an outstanding review, so there’s no point in me rattling on about the same things as him, but there was one aspect of the Hex that caught my eye for all the wrong reasons. One of Hex’s main selling points is its strength. As Menegus points out, Lelo demonstrate this by poking holes in a stretched out condom. Compared to a regular, non-honeycombed condom, the Hex maintains it’s shape and does not completely tear apart.
But as most of you already know, condoms don’t typically break because someone is stretching them out and poking tiny holes in them. They tear because the wearer didn’t pinch the reservoir when rolling it down or because of too much friction and not enough moistness. I worry that in practice if these tears are small enough to remain in one tiny hexagonal cell, that they might be too small to see. Thus causing the wearer and their partner to think they’re protected, which can have very real consequences - the kind that Lelo and Charlie Sheen (cringe...those two names together still don’t sound right to me) are trying to prevent.
Menegus mentions in his piece that a Lelo representative showed him that at the base of the unrolled Hex condom the word “Respect” is printed in small relief. When asked what it meant, the Lelo rep replied “Respect the man who wears it.” I think that single statement, even if it wasn’t the official party line, perfectly and succinctly sums up Lelo’s mentality behind this product launch: Respect for the fucker, not the person getting fucked.