Because Philip Morris Cos. lost interest? Because nicotine became less addictive? Be cause we were swept up by a global trend? None of the above. An entire generation of Americans, uniquely in the Western world, abandoned an entrenched cultural behavior because the government unilaterally decided to scare the living bejeebers out of us. Because TV viewers saw public service announcements, such as "Like Father, Like Son," because fifth graders were shown cross sections of blackened lung tissue, because THE SURGEON GENERAL HAS DETERMINED THAT IF YOU SMOKE, SUCKER, YOU GONNA DIE
It was an astonishing achievement in the safeguarding of public health, on par with Pasteur and Salk: information as vaccine. And now, faced with a far greater menace, the government is trying to do it again. The PSA campaign from the Centers for Disease Control, via Ogilvy & Mather, Atlanta, is called "America Responds to AIDS."
"My message is simple," says an intense and street-wise young AIDS counselor named Denise Stokes in one gritty spot. "If you're gonna have sex, a latex condom used consistently and correctly could help prevent the spread of HIV and other STDs. People out there gotta understand. That's why I'll go anywhere to talk about latex condoms. Even into your living room."
More power to her. Unfortunately the CDC seems to be the one government agency that, when it barges into your living room, does so on tiptoes, meekly, with hat in hand.
This has a lot to do with politics and craven deference to the puritanical forces of denial. For their benefit, the campaign is diluted with ludicrous abstinence messages-ludicrous not because the sentiment isn't right, but because the writing, casting, acting and tone are so dreadful. The twentysomething actors, looking like doe-eyed refugees from "All My Children," end parallel monologues of devotion with the melodramatic declaration, "There is a time for us to be lovers. We will wait until that time comes." The line is meant to be morally instructive and emotionally resonant, but it's just a howler.
Indeed most of the spots are terrible. One featuring an animated condom package bopping its way to an even more animated bedroom scene is too whimsical to have impact. One offering a free brochure on proper condom use is far too bland to break through the clutter. Even the Denise Stokes spot unaccountably denies viewers of the most potent truth: She is HIV-positive. Her partner did not use a condom and she is doomed.
To penetrate the hormonal shield and adolescent contrariness of the nation's youth, insipid preachiness and cartoon whimsy and pulled punches will not suffice. To reach this audience, nothing less than naked fear mongering will do, nothing less than photos of wasted AIDS victims next to their smiling high school graduation photos, nothing less than: THE SURGEON GENERAL HAS DETERMINED: USE A CONDOM OR DIE.
A better title for this campaign might be: AMERICA RESPONDS BELATEDLY AND WEAKLY TO AIDS. NOW THAT IT REALIZES THAT WHITE MIDDLE-CLASS HETEROSEXUALS ARE AT RISK. But at least progress is being made.
The best of the new spots does make clear how serious the stakes are in this matter. A couple is in the midst of heavy pawing, but when he can't produce a condom she says, "Forget it." No condom, no sex. It is not about death; it's even more terrifying.M
New anti-AIDS PSAs do everything but scare the bejeebers out of viewers-which is exactly what they should be doing.