Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Sexy ads boost S Africa's fight against AIDS

PREVENTION In a daring effort to change behavior and check the spread of HIV, the loveLife campaign uses racy advertising to make safe sex a hip thing to do

THE GUARDIAN , JOHANNESBURG

They are young and gorgeous, dressed scantily, if at all, and with sex on the brain. When not unbuckling belts, rolling in bed, entwining legs and sliding hands towards nether regions, they are talking about sex.

And they are everywhere. On billboards and television, in newspapers and magazines, suffusing South Africa with what resembles a racy advertising campaign for fizzy drinks or jeans.

In fact this is an HIV/AIDS prevention campaign, one of the most audacious and controversial to be attempted in Africa, and the use of branding techniques is intentional. If it works, safe-sex will become as hip and ubiquitous as Coke.

South Africa has about five million people with HIV, more than any other country, and driving the pandemic is the sexual behavior of teenagers.

If current infection rates continue, half of all South Africans below the age of 15 could become infected over the next 10 years.

Such statistics are the reason why official reports are given titles like Impending Catastrophe. With 40 per cent of the population below the age of 20, a holocaust will unfold over the next few years unless there is a dramatic change.

But changing sexual behavior is precisely what two decades of HIV/AIDS initiatives have largely failed to do. Across the continent, about 90 per cent of people are aware of how one gets HIV. Yet still they have unprotected sex. Different strategies -- cajoling, threatening, frightening, begging -- have been tried, with little success.

South Africa is now trying something new, a national prevention program called loveLife. Aimed at 12 to 17-year-olds, it is the country's main barrier against the wave of new HIV infections.

The UN and foreign governments are among those watching to see if it works.

Funded mainly by foundations set up by the American philanthropists Henry Kaiser and Bill Gates, loveLife ties a media blitz promoting sexual responsibility to a network of telephone lines, clinics and youth centers.

"The idea is to make loveLife a brand," said a spokeswoman, Angela Stewart-Buchanan. "In South Africa you have incredible brand loyalty and recognition. We want to compete with Levis, Diesel, Coca-Cola.

"LoveLife positions itself as a healthy lifestyle which is cool and hip. Like it or not, young people here have bought into American youth culture, and to reach them we need to be there."

So slogans encouraging teenagers and their parents to discuss sex are adorned with the type of images you might see on a rap album.

Complaints cascade into the country's advertising standards authority.

It is not just prudes who object. Several AIDS specialists call the campaign misguided, saying it will be less effective than Uganda's acclaimed strategy of shifting community norms of sexual behavior.

But loveLife has also been endorsed by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and UN experts on AIDS.

Does it work? After three years it is still too soon to know, but loveLife offers statistics -- challenged by critics -- which look promising: almost two-thirds of young South Africans recognize the brand, and of those, two-thirds say they have delayed or abstained from sex as a result.

Among those who are sexually active and know the brand, 78 percent say loveLife caused them to use a condom, and 69 percent reduced their number of sexual partners.

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