Speaking to facts, not hearts

For a campaign whose tagline is “talk about it”, retracting the billboard was a bitter pill to swallow. It wasn’t so much about loss of face as trying to reconcile the public response with the concerns expressed by organisations within the sector.

Last weekend in the town of Paul Roux in the eastern Free State, 1  000 parents and children met in response to loveLife’s call to face HIV. They tried to understand what drives teenage pregnancy despite knowledge of HIV and how to avoid it. These dialogues are being conducted throughout South Africa in response to the campaign. Earlier, on Yfm, young people called in to say “big ups to loveLife uyabon’. The new approach makes you think.

“I passed the billboard three times before I understood the message, but I kept thinking about it. What these guys are trying to do, they mustn’t slow down; it’s fresh and they are close to young people, uyabon’.”

In the past month, nearly 300 000 people called loveLife’s tollfree help-lines for counselling and advice in reaction to the billboards.

“HIV loves pelegi go supa bosadi [HIV loves the notion that child-bearing proves womanhood]” speaks to the fact that pregnancy is strongly associated with the explosion of HIV in late teens, leading to a prevalence of 25% among 21-year-old women. It addresses one of the drivers of teen pregnancy, namely the expectation that childbearing proves womanhood — a notion that is still compelling in some communities.

loveLife’s replacement billboard reads “Face It: Teen pregnancy increases risk of HIV”. It’s clearer, but tamer — and speaks to the facts, not to the heart. Will it attract 1 000 residents of Paul Roux to a full day’s discussion? Will it generate debate on Yfm and regional stations? Will it prompt calls to the helpline? Will young people care about what it says now that it has the stamp of approval of the billboard police? It remains to be seen.

loveLife is a target-driven HIV prevention campaign with a finite lifespan. Its sustainability rests largely on its partnership with the government in implementing key strategies for clinic, youth and sports development. It is only one part of a national prevention portfolio — positioned, if you like, at the high-risk/high-returns end of the spectrum.

If you were an investor in HIV -prevention, would you put your money into more of the same? The ABC (abstain, be faithful, condomise message) has been drummed for years now with little to show for it. The remaining obstacles to reducing HIV infection are even more intractable than those we’ve overcome. There may be more gains by sticking with the game plan but real potential rests in opening up new lines of attack against HIV. The problem is that this requires some experimentation. We need to build on best practice, yet avoid such homogenisation of message and strategy that major opportunities pass us by unrecognised.

Why are we suckered into such a narrow response to the epidemic? Arguing about ABC and “clarity of message” avoids analysis of more intractable issues of social and structural inequality. It reinforces deficient notions that sexual behaviour is an exclusive function of individual choice. It endorses the didactic “strict father model” described by George Lakoff in Moral Politics. We fixate on “messaging” — telling people what they should and shouldn’t do. Instead, we should be tackling the compelling and pervasive motivations for risk-taking behaviour. What drives a 17-year-old girl to have unprotected sex, despite her knowledge of the risk of HIV and how to prevent it?

Have you seen loveLife in action? Together with the government and community-based organisations, it reaches more than half a million teenagers a month face to face. Most are from marginalised communities. They may not have easy access to the media, but they vote with their feet. The billboards engage young -people, drawing them to loveLife where they interact with ground-BREAKERS and izimpintshi (buddies) — nurturing a sense of purpose and identity with an HIV-free lifestyle.

Indeed, these factors may be the real catalysts for behaviour change. Further progress requires that we grapple with the norms, traditions and prejudices that shape personal behaviour and sexual dynamics in our society. We’re not looking for a licence to offend, merely the right to prospect for major new gains in HIV prevention by mining in unexplored territory.

David Harrison is CEO of loveLife

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