SOUTH AFRICA: Scrutinize! An in-your-face HIV prevention campaign

JOHANNESBURG - They are like no other HIV awareness adverts you've seen before. Instead of earnest celebrities or solemn voiceovers imploring the youth to abstain or practice safe sex, they feature attention-grabbing graphics and wise-cracking cartoon characters delivering HIV messages in catchy phrases.

"Eliminate the element of surprise, scrutinize," screeches Victor, the main character. "Flip HIV to HI victory!" he urges at the end of each of the seven ads.

"It’s a cool ad," commented Mpho Mofokeng, a student at the University of Johannesburg. "It stays in your mind after you’ve seen it. In [other HIV adverts], there’s nothing that excites the youth – you can’t relate to them."

Devising an HIV awareness campaign that excites young South Africans exposed to over a decade of prevention messages is no small achievement, but the ‘Scrutinize’ campaign, with its offbeat humour, township settings and direct approach appears to be a hit with its target audience of people aged 18 to 32.

"It’s a campaign that’s catching on," said Jean, another Johannesburg student who preferred not to give his last name. "It’s very catchy because they make you see the truth, but in a fun format that sticks in your mind."

Mandla Ndlovu, programme manager of the Scrutinize campaign at Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa (JHHESA), a local NGO affiliated to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), explained that the initiative was designed to be "something different from what people had seen before, to overcome ‘AIDS fatigue’."

A new language for talking about HIV

After extensive research on the key drivers of HIV infection in South Africa, and the extent to which previous prevention efforts had succeeded or failed in changing people’s risk behaviours, JHHESA commissioned Matchboxology, a private-sector company that specialises in marketing corporate social responsibility initiatives, to create the seven ‘ani-merts’, or animated commercials, that make up the mass media element of the campaign.

"The ani-merts look at taking one or two messages and making them understandable, but also cool and awesome," said Jason Coetzee, creative director of the campaign. "It’s an entirely different format to what anyone’s seen before for this type of thing – the use of humour and trying to put a positive spin on messages."

JHHESA’s research found that people were often uncomfortable talking about sexual issues with their partners. Coetzee believes the comical phrases in the Scrutinize ads give people a new way of raising possibly touchy issues, such as a partner’s reluctance to use condoms, or their suspicions of infidelity.

The word "scrutinize", given new meaning by comedian Joey Rasdien, the voice of Victor, has become a popular but adaptable code word for referring to a whole range of risky behaviours.

It’s very catchy because they make you see the truth, but in a fun format that sticks in your mindThe risk of having sex without a condom has long been a theme of HIV prevention messages, but the HIV risk associated with having multiple partners at the same time is fairly new. Research has revealed that this is one of the key factors behind the extremely high HIV prevalence among young people in South Africa and other countries in the region.

"A lot of South Africans interpret faithfulness as meaning they’re protecting their main partner from knowing about their other partners," said Richard Delate, country programme director for JHHESA. "We know condom usage is very high with casual sex partners, but it becomes inconsistent during longer-term relationships."

The importance of using condoms consistently, and the risks of having multiple partners, is driven home in all the Scrutinize ads, but some highlight additional risk behaviours such as alcohol use and transactional sex.

In "Booza Brain", a shebeen queen [female owner of an informal bar] warns: "If a player is too drunk to put it [a condom] on, don’t put him in the game", while in "Sugar Surprise", contestants in a game show display the gifts they’ve received from their wealthy lovers – who have also given them HIV.

Positive responses

After rigorous pre-testing, local broadcasters began airing the ads late last year. According to JHHESA, 92 percent of the campaign’s target market has seen "Undercover Lover", the ad that has received most exposure, an average of 12 times.

Victor and his friends have taken on a life of their own with unofficial pages on Facebook, the social networking website, and young people incorporating his catchphrases into their everyday speech.

"We have to be careful not to reach saturation point," said Delate. "These [ads] will run until June and then new ones will launch in September."

An informal PlusNews poll of young people on the University of Johannesburg campus revealed that white students were much less likely to have seen the ads than black students, but all those who had seen the ads were overwhelmingly positive about them.

"They’re a constant reminder that you must always be safe, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been with the person for 10 years," said Lungi Mtshamba, who has watched all the ads several times. "Some of them really are funny, and they use language which is really cool; it’s the way young people talk."

The upbeat tone of the ads – that it’s possible to "flip HIV to HI victory" – also seemed to have struck a chord. "It’s a serious topic but they’re trying to show us that approaching the virus with a positive attitude could make us safer," said Abrahm Tshepo.

The ani-merts are only one element of the Scrutinize campaign. JHHESA has partnered with DramAide to use Scrutinize materials to train around 600 peer educators in HIV prevention, mainly on university campuses. The work of the peer educators is followed up by live events featuring some of the celebrities creating the voices of the Scrutinize characters, who reinforce the messages of the ads with participatory games.


The extent to which the campaign will succeed in changing the behaviour of young South Africans remains to be seen. So far, focus group discussions conducted by JHHESA have revealed that audiences understand the gist of the messages and remember them, but not whether they act on them.

As popular as the ani-merts were with the students interviewed by IRIN/PlusNews, many seemed unconvinced of their impact. "I think people aren’t using the word ‘scrutinize’ in the right way," commented Mtshamba. "They use it in jokes but they don’t really know what it means – they just think the phrase is cool, not the message behind it."

"It’s something I knew already," said Jabu Sithole. "It’s kind of a reminder of what should be done." At this point in South Africa’s AIDS crisis, most people know what should be done to protect themselves from infection, but persuading them to do it has proved extremely difficult.

South Africa has been saturated by AIDS messages, so any approach that gets people’s attention deserves praise, but only a decline in new infections will prove its effectiveness.

In the absence of sufficient data measuring the rate of new infections, surveys that quiz respondents about their risk behaviours are the next best thing. JHHESA commissioned the first such survey in 2006 and will have the results of a second by the end of 2009.


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