AIDS Prevention Effort Draws Criticism

Pushing Condoms Not Universally Popular, But Clearly Rather Important

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With some pointed criticism greeting the federal government's first AIDS prevention campaign mentioning condoms, the next spots could take a more explicit turn with a regionalized approach.

Several gay and AIDS prevention activists hope so, and the Centers for Disease Control has told local groups it's considering funding public service announcements more in tune with community standards.

Some homosexual and minority groups have criticized the initial PSAs, from Ogilvy & Mather, Atlanta, as too anonymous, since it's impossible to determine the characters' ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation.

Melissa Shepherd, chief of social marketing and media for the CDC, disagreed.

"The [first] spots tested well among a wide diversity of people," Ms. Shepherd said, adding the government appreciates saving money on talent fees. "If I can design an advertisement that will show anybody and be effective, I will do it."

She acknowledged the CDC is "looking at a whole lot of options" for future AIDS awareness spots.

Exactly what shape any new campaign will take has yet to be determined. Ms. Shepherd said she doesn't know exactly when the next round of PSAs will be developed, who will be targeted or what messages will be sent out.

"We are giving the current flight of PSAs an opportunity to get into the market," she said. "We are evaluating their effect and doing research on what is next."

In January, the CDC unveiled a dozen spots from O&M, produced at a cost of $800,000, including two abstinence spots, one animated spot with a dancing condom and another in which a couple kisses passionately until she asks if he has a condom. He says no. She says, "Forget it."

A CDC study released in April found that from January to April, the spots were aired on time valued at almost $2.5 million, divided equally between commercials urging condom use and urging abstinence. ABC accounted for nearly half the time donated.

U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala last week lauded ABC for its efforts, and chided the other networks and cable channels.

"We hope that the other networks and the cable industry will work hard to catch up," she said. "I plan to meet personally with the heads of the networks and the cable industry to convince them to do more."

"The campaign is a good first step-it gets the message into the public," said David Ford, media relations manager for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. "For those of us who have been around for a while, it's pretty amazing coming from the federal government. It's great the government took a stand."

The problem, Mr. Ford said, is that the broad-stroke campaign doesn't address the needs of specific communities.

Another concern is that the campaign fails to mention young gays. "This confirms, or underscores, their invisibility and adds to shame" over homosexuality, he said.

From a safety standpoint, moreover, there are serious problems with the government's seeming endorsement of condoms as a failsafe AIDS prevention measure, Mr. Ford said. The spots, for example, fail to note that petroleum jelly breaks down the condom and makes it an ineffective barrier against HIV.

But the existing campaign has run into other criticisms.

"The spots did not go far enough," said Sharen Trammell, a a public policy advocate with the San Francisco Black Coalition on AIDS. "What is the norm here in San Francisco is not the norm in Omaha."

Ms. Trammell also sits on the Prevention Marketing Initiative, consisting of 155 community groups nationwide working with the CDC to develop the AIDS education program.

That group has recommended future campaigns from the CDC be targeted at 18-to-25-year-olds. The current spots are aimed at those 25 and older.

But the campaign does appear to have accomplished some of what it was intended to do: One Los Angeles AIDS prevention group reported that since the CDC initiated its condom spots, the group has had success in getting its own locally produced and financed spots aired.

And the CDC is checking whether the spots have boosted condom sales.

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