Ads Against AIDS

A fin slides through the water, unseen by two African American men in wetsuits. One is set to dive right into the water, ignoring the protective cage. “Let’s do it without, just this once,” he says.

When his mate protests, the man argues, “How long have we been doing this together? Have we ever been eaten by a shark?” And so they both make the jump.

Then the tag, “Stop making excuses. Always use protection,” and a final, Jaws-style shot of bloody water.

“South Park humor,” as the ad’s creator, Michael Franzini, describes it, meets the AIDS-awareness campaign.

It was 20 years ago last summer that reports of AIDS were first published in the U.S. In the high-profile awareness efforts that came together several years later, the main concerns were misinformation about the disease and the stigma associated with it. Prevention efforts, some aimed at the general population and some at gay men, warned that unsafe sex could mean a death sentence. The tone was blunt—in 1988, the Ad Council earned the distinction of getting the word condom on television for the first time.

Public-awareness efforts waned by the late ’90s as the new drug cocktails appeared to soften the severity of the crisis. Ryan White had once been the heartrending face of the disease; a decade later, it was a robust-looking Magic Johnson.

But while some news has been good, it’s now clear that there’s plenty of bad news. People of color and young adults, in particular, are making fatal mistakes. People under 25 account for half of all new HIV infections in the U.S., according to a March 2002 fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control. AIDS is the No. 1 killer of African Americans aged 25-44. Women now account for one-third of new HIV infections.

Advocacy groups and ad executives are changing course as the scope of the disease changes. Much of the recent work is targeted at teens, who grew up aware of the disease but seem blasé about it. “There hasn’t been a lot of depth to the advertising [in the past]. It’s been somewhat generic,” says Mark Wilson, management supervisor at urban-youth shop Prime Access Inc. “The biggest creative shift has been in really understanding that this is affecting urban youth at a frightening rate.”

That New York agency is one of five chosen by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation to participate in a $120 million Know HIV/ AIDS initiative in partnership with Viacom, the largest effort to date in terms of media exposure. The multiyear campaign broke nationwide Jan. 6 with the grand mission of altering the course of HIV infection. In addition to the general public, it targets minorities, people under 25, women, and men who have sex with men.

The other participating agencies are African American shop Burrell Communications Group in Chicago; Villains in Beverly Hills, Calif., which focuses on the youth market; Hispanic shop Publicis Sanchez & Levitan in New York, which is teaming with Prime Access for the outdoor and radio component; and DDB Bass & Howes in Seattle, which tackles the general-market work. The shops have significantly reduced their fees, and in some cases are compensated only for production costs.

The push includes 49 targeted PSAs running across Viacom’s television, radio and outdoor outlets and the incorporation of AIDS story lines into programming on Viacom networks (shows ranging from Becker on CBS to Girlfriends on UPN have weaved AIDS into episodes during the past month).

The XIV International AIDS Conference in Barcelona last summer served as a wake-up call, says Tina Hoff, director of the program on public health information and partnerships at the nonprofit Kaiser Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif. The conference highlighted the devastating scope of the disease: AIDS has killed 20 million people, and another 68 million are estimated to die from it by 2020.

“[It] caused us to reassess our thinking about AIDS,” she says. “It’s clear that we need to change the way things are heading, or it will only get worse.” The foundation, which develops research and communications programs on public health issues, has worked on numerous AIDS awareness programs.

The Know HIV/AIDS work from DDB Bass & Howes is focused on “what AIDS does to whole communities in the developing world,” says Eric Gutierrez, associate creative director. In one spot, a soccer mom in an SUV drives through a middle-class neighborhood in which yards are unkempt and streets littered. She lists all her acquaintances lost to AIDS, and the tag concludes, “Imagine if AIDS hit your world the way it’s hit other parts of world.”

“From the standpoint of the canon of AIDS advertising, it is the first truly conceptual campaign to shed light on the global crisis,” Gutierrez says. “It’s a subtle, realistic approach. Other spots tend to tug at your heartstrings. This tugs a bit more at your head.”

In one of the six spots from Burrell, Mo’Nique, the star of UPN’s The Parkers, comically dramatizes men’s arguments for not using condoms. “Hey, sisters, here are some lines you want to stay away from: ‘Baby, they just don’t feel natural to me,’ ” she mimics, followed by her comeback: “Please!”

“We were trying to empower women,” says Burrell’s Alma Hopkins, managing director, creative innovations. “And we were trying to do it in a positive manner.”

The shark spot, a provocative approach to the condom message, is part of MTV’s “Fight for Your Rights” PSA series against discrimination. It’s one of three in a new campaign from Public Interest Productions in Santa Monica, Calif., in conjunction with London-based agency Mother.

“Safe-sex messages have been around for [teens’] entire lives,” says Michael Franzini, president and creative director at Public Interest, a nonprofit affiliated with Radical Media. “They know and understand what’s risky and what they’re supposed to do. But nonetheless, they do it.”

The attitude, Franzini said, is summed up by a comment he heard in a Los Angeles focus group of high-risk urban teens. Asked if they were concerned about HIV infection, one commented, “It would suck to have to take all those pills.”

Rather than preaching, the MTV ads “tell a joke with a kernel of truth,” Franzini says. One execution shows a young man insisting he doesn’t need a safety harness for a roller coaster ride. “I find these things so restricting. I want to be free. I want to feel everything!” he says. “I just want to make this time special.” A third spot shows a rock-climbing scenario.

Franzini also produced the new “White Bedroom” campaign, created by Roger Baldacci and Rob Baird of Boston’s Arnold as a side project. Sponsored by the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the Mac AIDS Fund, the eight spots that break Wednesday on MTV, BET and VH1 take a more traditional celebrity-driven tack. Elton John, Mary J. Blige and Shirley Manson of the band Garbage appear alongside young people talking about sex. Each spot ends with the copy, “AIDS ain’t over. Wear a condom.”

The celebrity approach goes back to the early years of AIDS, when famous faces like Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep tried to dispel AIDS myths for an Ad Council/American Red Cross effort. The earliest high-profile campaign, “America Responds to AIDS,” also emphasized basic facts, telling Americans that the disease wasn’t limited to any one population. “If I can get AIDS, anyone can,” said the son of a Baptist minister in a 1987 spot created by Ogilvy & Mather in Atlanta for the $90 million Centers for Disease Control effort.

Nowadays, the CDC’s work is very narrowly targeted. In February 2002 it launched the “Know Now” campaign, aimed at low-income African Americans with little education in urban centers and the Delta; low-income, bilingual Hispanics; and middle-income, college-educated, gay white males. The message—on radio, transit ads, buses, billboards, posters and brochures—urges prevention and HIV testing.

Because AIDS awareness is so targeted, the notion of attempting a global campaign is generally dismissed—a nationwide campaign is challenge enough. Franzini points out that cultural differences between countries are especially pronounced when it comes to sex. In some countries, promiscuity is the norm, and in others any talk of sex is taboo. And pop-culture differences among teens make it difficult to export youth-targeted ads.

“We need to address AIDS on a country-by-country, if not village-by-village basis,” says Peggy Conlon, Ad Council president and CEO. “We’ve learned that a one-size-fits-all international campaign is not really possible.”

American awareness of the global crisis, however, is a goal, and the Ad Council is working with the United Nations Foundation and Leo Burnett in Chicago on the “Apathy Is Lethal” campaign. The effort premiered at the International AIDS Conference and broke domestically in October. In one spot, “Kids,” a lullaby plays as toddlers roam city streets, trying to cook and bathe themselves. The voiceover, by Michael Douglas, concludes: “AIDS has created over 14 million orphans worldwide. That’s the equivalent of every child under 5 in America with no one to watch over them.”

Conlon says the campaign is part of a new phase in AIDS advertising. “The wonderful drugs that are now available have created a generation that no longer views AIDS as a death sentence,” she says. “We have to remember that although we’ve educated one generation, we still have to educate the next one coming along behind.”