Today the world commemorates World AIDS Day, as we remember the people we have lost to this epidemic, and reflect and take in lessons learnt to figure out where we go to from here to get to zero – zero new infections, zero deaths as a result of AIDS.

The biggest prevention message is ‘use a condom’, and it has been since the beginning of the epidemic – bar a few years when the US pushed the abstinence message big time. But 30 years later, that message still isn’t really being picked up on, many people are still not wearing condoms.

I was having a conversation with my significant other, and one of my girlfriends (not at the same time), when I was analyzing why people don’t like to use condoms despite knowing the dangers of unprotected sex. There are probably many reasons why people don’t use condoms, but what I was interested in was the emotional side of it. When you’re in a relationship you don’t want to use condoms because one of the condom messages that does stick in our minds is that condoms can prevent diseases.

So when you’re in a relationship, you wonder if you’re using condoms does that mean that you’re not special? Does the person not trust you? Or what is he/she hiding that they insist on condom use?

This is obviously the emotional side of your brain asking these questions because the rational one knows that actually, it’s a really responsible thing to do. Yeah you can get tested, but as I’ve seen in my last few months in Zambia, it’s easy to have other relationships outside of your main relationship and that’s acceptable. So you may be chilling thinking you’re all good and your man or woman only ‘eats’ at home, not knowing, or not wanting to believe that there is a side dish out there.

Recently I heard about a couple who were both cheating, yet when the wife found out her husband was in a long-term relationship with someone else, she was outraged saying how she needed to take an HIV test. I didn’t want to point out that she too had been playing outside the marital bed, and in fact almost thought she was pregnant – meaning she was not using condoms, so really she had put her husband at as much risk as he’d put her at.

I think when people are doing these prevention messages they really need to think about the audience and how they are receiving those messages. The condom message as is is fine for casual sex, or a regular sex partner, but when you’re in a steady relationship, it needs to address the emotional side of using a condom too.

I feel we need to turn condoms from being a ‘dirty’ thing to something that isn’t shrouded in distrust but to something that gives you peace of mind, which equals more pleasurable sex. Maybe messages should focus on your partner’s other sexual partners, we’ve all dated partners who have dated questionable people, if you think you are indirectly sleeping with that person when you don’t use a condom, maybe it’ll make you think twice about not using one!

It does mean that other than making generic ads on condom use, you have to really segment your audience and address their emotional, financial, and physical needs. It does mean that people have to invest more dollars into mass media prevention campaigns. But isn’t that how you will achieve impact at scale? It makes me laugh how so many development agencies want to be ‘like the cool brands’ and launch a ‘brand’ or copy a technique used by popular brands, but ignore the fact that these so-called cool brands spend a hell of a lot of money on their R&D and more importantly, their advertising campaigns. If an HIV prevention campaign had half the advertising budget of say Apple of Coca Cola and left it to the experienced ad agencies to develop the campaign for them (that’s another pet gripe, for another blog post), I’m sure they would get some traction. But thinking that you can run a mass media campaign for a year to reach millions of people and throw less than even a $100k is a bit of a joke if you ask me. But now I’m digressing to my other blog post (for another time).

Another message that I think has not helped is the get tested message, certainly in Zambia. I sat through a message design meeting – if that’s the right word – for one of our clients as they asked us to develop a spot for them that would get people to go for an HIV test. I innocently asked, ‘why should people get tested?’ – It’s common in putting across a message to communicate the benefits of the action you want people to take. However, I was met with a look of disbelief, like what’d I’d said was either sacrilegious or the stupidest thing they’d ever heard. To be their answer was what was shocking, ‘because research shows that if you go on treatment early you can have a longer life’ or something like that – basically, they meant that because when you tested positive you could access treatment and care. Which is obviously great and useful information to know, but if someone told me that if I was personally asking why I should go to get tested, then I’d immediately assume that to take a test means finding out you’re HIV positive.

Unfortunately that is how the message has been communicated for too long. People forget that there are more people who are not infected than they are infected. Knowing your status should be about taking control of your life.

That’s another interesting debate as my brother, and creative director at Media 365, says that that is also a problem message in itself because a lot of people in Zambia don’t actually believe they can take control of their life. Again that’s another blog post, I won’t digress.

My point is we need to do the remix on some of these messages, or at least upgrade them to reflect the realities on the ground, understand how they are perceived and look at people’s motivating factors to adopt these safe behaviours and then flood the market with them. These are my thoughts today when we ask, why 30 years after the first case of HIV, still an overwhelming 2.7million people were newly infected in 2010.

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