For an artist trying to penetrate the market, few opportunities are as good as this.

In an effort to promote condom use, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health's Division of Disease Control is sponsoring a contest to design its prophylactic wrappers.

The competition, which has been extended to Jan. 14, invites artists to submit designs with a "unique and positive message," said Carol Johnson, director of the disease-control division.

The winning design, as chosen by online voters, will adorn the wrappers of at least 500,000 condoms that the city distributes. The city hands out about 1 million free condoms each year at health clinics, schools and other locations, and it aims to double that total in 2011.

"We're trying to push the prevention message," Johnson said. "We're looking for something bold to help promote the use of condoms."

Philadelphia has a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. Compared with residents from the rest of the state, city residents are about five times more likely to have chlamydia, six times more likely to have gonorrhea and 40 times more likely to have syphilis, according to the city health department.

While few people may choose a condom based on a label, they may be more likely to pick up a few specially designed ones for the novelty. And - who knows? - those could end up coming in handy.

"The more you get them out there, the more they're accepted," Johnson said. "You never know when you might need one."

The idea for the contest comes from New York, which began offering condom wrappers with its own unique designs in 2007. The city dispenses more than 41 million free condoms each year.

"What we are always trying to do is be creative about keeping condoms on people's mind so when they need them they put them on their bodies," said Monica Sweeney, assistant commissioner for New York City's Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control.

This year, New York held its first condom-wrapper design competition. After narrowing the competition down from more than 600 entries to five finalists, people voted online to decide a winner. More than 15,000 votes were tallied.

The winning design showed an orange power button set against a brown background, which the artist said he hoped reminded people that they were in control.

Since the Philadelphia contest opened in November, about 12 designs have been submitted, Johnson said. A few used the city skyline, while others were more text-based.

Johnson said city officials will pick a handful of finalists before opening the voting on the final design to the public in mid-January. Voting will be done online at

The additional $10,000 the custom wrappers will cost is coming from grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johnson said. The winning designer will receive $250.

Asked if people ever choose a prophylactic based on a wrapper, Sweeney noted that people have different reasons for choosing condoms. At a recent dinner party, fellow guests asked her why the city wasn't handing out glow-in-the-dark condoms.

"I don't care why you choose a condom as long as you choose it and use it," she said.