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International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing

Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark. 15: 91–103 (2010)

Published online 3 May 2009 in Wiley InterScience
(www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: 10.1002/nvsm.366

Branding HIV/AIDS communication:

the social marketing campaigns of
MTV and Viacom
Cheryl Martens*
School of Creative Enterprise, London College of Communication, University of the Arts
London, UK

 Based on an ethnographic study of the production and reception of HIV/AIDS public

service campaigns by MTV and Viacom, this paper examines the role of branding in HIV/
AIDS education promotion. A main premise of the paper is that audiences for HIV/AIDS
social marketing campaigns are now less addressed in terms of the classic HIV/AIDS
prevention categories of ‘general public’ and ‘risk groups’ and are increasingly viewed as
‘market segments’ implicated in the campaigns in relation to the techniques of branding.
Drawing on examples from research conducted amongst audiences in the North of
England, the findings highlight the differing audience understandings of the branded
consumer objects and icons of HIV awareness. Using a cultural materialist perspective,
concerned with the relationship between the campaigns and social relations, this paper
examines the process of corporate-sponsored HIV/AIDS campaigns. The findings under-
score how social marketing campaigns are increasingly being related to as branded
media objects and icons, closely tied to people’s material experience and understandings
of the aesthetics framing these branded objects and icons. The paper argues that
identification and engagement with the campaigns is most evident amongst participants
who shared the consumer values and the marketing discourses used by marketing
managers and producers of the public service announcements.
Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Introduction (1997), who defines it as the applied use of

commercial marketing concepts to effect
Since Kotler and Zaltman (1971) first coined the voluntary behaviour change amongst target
term ‘social marketing’ to refer to the use of
audiences in order to improve their personal
marketing concepts to address social and health welfare and society. However, rather than
problems, several variations of this definition
applying a framework of social marketing
have been offered. The term as it is used in this principles, this paper seeks to investigate how
paper draws on the definition of Andreasen
social marketing may be seen from a cultural
*Correspondence to: Cheryl Martens, School of Creative materialist perspective, which investigates the
Enterprise, London College of Communication, Univer- campaigns as an interactive, relational process
sity of the Arts London, Elephant and Castle London, SE1
6SB, UK. through which individuals come to understand
E-mail: c.martens@lcc.arts.ac.uk themselves and respond to the campaigns.

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
92 Cheryl Martens

Recent scholarship concerning the social attempt, however, to provide a definitive

marketing of HIV/AIDS education focuses evaluation of the HIV/AIDS education cam-
much attention on measuring the reach and paigns of MTV and Viacom. Given the greater
impact of campaigns on particular audiences in involvement of corporations in the leadership,
specific countries (Eloundou-Enyegue et al., implementation and aestheticisation of HIV/
2005; Lombardo and Léger, 2007; Van Rossem AIDS campaigns, and the dearth of qualitative
and Meekers, 2007). Methodologically, a wide research examining the branding of HIV/AIDS
range of methods to evaluate the success of communication as an interactive and dynamic
HIV/AIDS education campaigns have been process, this paper seeks to explore the
used; however, there is a privileging of more cultural materiality and the dynamics of the
experimental, and randomised control trials in social marketing of HIV/AIDS education. To do
much of the literature (cf. Oakley and Full- so, it takes as a case study the branded
erton, 1996; O’Leary et al., 1997). Whilst many campaigns created by global media leaders
studies acknowledge HIV/AIDS education MTV and Viacom, examining audience under-
within the realm of social marketing, there standings of these branded consumer encoun-
has been very little discussion of HIV/AIDS ters.
campaigns in relation to the macro environ- The public service HIV/AIDS education
ment of consumer culture and marketing, campaigns of MTV International (Staying
which includes the branding and aestheticisa- Alive1) and parent company Viacom2 (KNOW
tion that currently frames people’s interactions HIV/AIDS, 2003–20063) have been selected
with campaigns. due to the ubiquity of the campaigns and the
In terms of methodological approaches to global media leadership role of these corpor-
evaluating campaigns, Van de Ven and Aggleton ations in processes such as the Global Media
(1998) argue strongly against the prevailing AIDS initiative4. The campaigns are presented
orthodoxy of HIV/AIDS education evaluation
that places experimental approaches based in The Staying Alive Campaign was first launched in 1998
the biosocial sciences as the ‘gold standard’. and became the world’s largest, long-term global media
initiative targeted to youth with the support of parent
They have identified six different methodologi- company, Viacom in 2002. MTV, the Kaiser Family
cal models used to evaluate campaigns: (1) the Foundation, and Family Health International have pro-
objectives model, which measures the target duced public service announcements (PSAs) for the
Staying Alive campaign for distribution in more than
group in relation to campaign objectives; (2) 164 countries. For further details of MTV’s partnerships,
the self-study model, based on staff evaluation see www.staying-alive.org.
of programmes; (3) the illumination model, In 2005, Viacom divided its holdings into two compa-
nies, Viacom and CBS Corporation, two years into the
which seeks to describe and gather information KNOW/HIV AIDS Campaign. Both corporations actively
for stakeholders by presenting the various sponsor and produce HIV/AIDS education programming.
opinions of audience members; (4) decision References to Viacom in this text include CBS Corpor-
making models, based on rational choice ation’s participation in this initiative.
The KNOW HIV/AIDS prevention initiative was spon-
theories; (5) experimental approaches, which sored by Viacom and CBS Corporation 2003-2006 in
seek to evaluate cause and effect relationships partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
and (6) goal free evaluation, which assesses the The initiative produced 123 messages placed on CBS and
Viacom television, radio and outdoor properties. The
outcomes of HIV/AIDS education, irrespective media value of the campaign was estimated by Viacom
of the educational goals. In their analysis, they at USD $600. For further information about the initiative
argue with others in the field (i.e. Coates et al., see www.kff.org.
The Global Media AIDS Initiative (GMAI) was launched
1996) that it is only through a variety of research at the United Nations in 2004 by Kaiser Family Founda-
methods and approaches, often in combination tion and UNAIDS at a meeting with global media execu-
with each other at multiple levels that HIV/ tives and now has more than 300 corporate media
AIDS education success can be measured. members. Viacom was the initiative’s first signatory
and Bill Roedy, President of MTV Networks International
The research presented here supports this was the GMAI’s first Chairman. For further information
mixed methods perspective. It does not see www.thegmai.org.

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
Branding HIV/AIDS communication 93

not only across the wide range their media programme of its kind to centrally focus on
properties including television, digital and marketing expertise to raise awareness about
outdoor advertising, but also beyond their HIV. More recently the discourse of ‘selling’
broadcasting areas, by third party broadcasters HIV/AIDS education in aesthetic terms can be
offered on a rights free basis. As a result, these seen to be entrenched in relation to how HIV/
initiatives, produced in collaboration with non- AIDS prevention is now conducted. This can
governmental and intergovernmental partners, be seen on a range of levels, from Community
such as UNAIDS reach an estimated two thirds Based Organisations (CBOs), to larger inter-
of the world’s television viewers (Family national non-governmental organisations and
Health International, 2003). the advertising agencies involved in the
production of campaigns. In a US Centre for
Background Disease Control (2000) study of community
based organisations, one CBO summed up HIV
The involvement of private corporations in education efforts as follows:
social marketing HIV/AIDS education pro-
motion now spans three decades, yet social
marketing strategies of HIV/AIDS prevention If we give them a good product, they’ll
have only begun the concerted ‘selling’ of HIV come back for more. So we know who the
education in relation to aesthetic information market is and what they want to buy, you
and values at the global level since the late know, and then we sell it to them. . . We’re
1990s. This is particularly evident in corporate- selling self-esteem, we’re selling activism,
led HIV/AIDS campaigns such as MTV’s Staying we’re selling hope for the future. . .we are
Alive and Viacom’s Know HIV/AIDS cam- selling HIV prevention (CDC, 2000: 10).
paigns, which now appear across their media
platforms. Some programming, such as the Viewed as a product to be sold, the argument
World AIDS day programming of MTV now has a being put forward is that if the prevention efforts
television reach of two thirds of the world’s are packaged in an attractive enough manner, in
population. The approach of selling and tune with people’s consumer values, not only
aestheticising HIV/AIDS education; however, will messages be sold to them on a one-off basis,
can be increasingly seen in the approaches of they will seek out this information as part of their
governmental and non-governmental actors, lifestyle and ‘come back for more’ (Center for
particularly in the United States. Referring to Disease Control, 2000). Actor Richard Gere,
the US context in 1998, the former executive founder of the Heroes Project in India, which
director of the Harvard AIDS Institute argues works closely with Viacom and media corpor-
that: ations in India, similarly emphasises the selling
of HIV as an aesthetic object that needs to be
‘sexy’ and ‘alive’:
Preaching abstinence wouldn’t sell many
Calvin Klein’s, and urging risk avoidance
wouldn’t sell many Nikes,[y]et abstinence How do you sell HIV and make it sexy and
and risk avoidance are exactly how HIV alive and interesting over and over and
prevention is being sold to young people - over again? You’ve got to be creative about
one of the groups at highest risk for it. And that was one of the reasons we had
infection (Marlink in Byron, 1998). our creative summit. It was talking about
exactly that issue, on keeping it alive for
With the aim of creating new strategies to the journalists and for the writer so they’re
prevent HIV amongst young people, the still interested, they’re still open to this and
Harvard AIDS Institute and the Centre for they’re creative but to feed more stories,
AIDS Prevention Studies launched Marketing more possibilities, more angles, more
HIV Prevention (MHP) in 1997, the first humour, more life, more human interests,

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
94 Cheryl Martens

not just facts. Facts are dead, can’t tell that as potentially ‘enhacing human intimacy’
story anymore (Gere, 2005). (www.cpbgroup.com).

Gere’s perspective on selling and bringing

Research methodology
HIV ‘to life’ follows trends in the field of
mainstream marketing. Marketing consultant, As discussed above, a lacunae in the social
Gobe (2001), in his bestselling book marketing research of HIV/AIDS education
Emotional Branding, emphasises the signifi- promotion exists with regard to examining
cance of engaging the senses and emotions of campaigns as branded consumer encounters.
consumers. Gobe argues that focussing on Furthermore, the studies of the social market-
people’s desire to transcend material satisfac- ing of HIV/AIDS campaigns have largely drawn
tion and experience fulfilment enables market- on quantitative methods, which tend to
ers to tap into people’s aspirational drivers, narrow meanings into a few categories and
motivating their actions. Gere and Marlink’s do not successfully address the subjective
approaches to HIV/AIDS education concur meanings or fully capture the complexities
with Gobe’s perspective on emotional brand- involved in understanding and interacting with
ing, conceptualising HIV/AIDS as a product social marketing campaigns. The approach
incorporating an aestheticised vision of how adopted here is from an interpretivist perspect-
this information should be packaged to reach ive, whereby ‘meanings are varied and
the senses and aspirations of the audience. In multiple, leading the researcher to look for
addition, this perspective draws heavily on the complexity of views’ (Cesswell, 2007:20)
rhetorical strategies by marketing managers in rather than testing a specific theory or applying
reinforcing the little interrogated ideologies of a particular model, the purpose of this research
experiential marketing and ‘customer satisfac- is to examine patterns of meaning.
tion’ as documented Hackley’s (2003) critique In order to examine the dynamics of audience
of marketing management texts and dis- interactions with the branding and aestheticisa-
courses. tion of HIV/AIDS education messages, audience
Seeking to move beyond ‘facts’, towards responses were considered in relation to
aspirations, the advertising agency to Via- prevailing images, discourses and beliefs preva-
com’s, 2004 ‘Knowing is Beautiful’ Cam- lent in education campaigns. The research
paign, Crispin Porter þ Bogusky, embraces this presented here is based on the findings of six
view. Using Gap style multicultural fashion focus groups and an in-depth interview sample
models, the campaign connects the promotion of focus group participants (N ¼ 38). These
of HIV testing with the marketing techniques results are presented as part of a wider
involved in fashion branding: ethnographic research project of the pro-
duction and reception of MTV and Viacom
What if we made HIV testing seem cool? campaigns from 2004–2007, conducted in a city
What if we treated it like a fashion brand? in North East England.
Instead of trying to scare people into getting The research strategy adopted a cultural
tested, what if we made it something they studies perspective, whereby media pro-
actually aspire to (www.cpbgroup.com)? duction and reception are considered complex
processes of constant negotiation, of proces-
This view of HIV testing and prevention—as sing and reconstruction. Representations are
a product to be branded and an object to be thus not merely copies of ‘reality’ but
related to—is central to Viacom and MTV’s incorporate social and culturally situated
conception of HIV/AIDS education promotion. understandings and feelings, as well as contra-
Crispin Porter þ Bogusky views and constructs dictory meanings (Van Zoonen, 1994). Especi-
the promotion of the HIV antibody testing ally important to this perspective is that
for the ‘Knowing is Beautiful’ campaign production, texts and audiences cannot be

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
Branding HIV/AIDS communication 95

analysed in isolation of one another, but rather focus groups of services users and volunteers
must be viewed as interlinked in the process of at a local centre for HIV were also included,
meaning making. The campaigns presented which included individuals above the age of
here were produced by Viacom and MTV twenty-five. Due to the personal nature of the
between 2004 and 2006. Specific case studies content, pre-existing groups were used so that
of campaigns were selected in order to avoid participants would feel more at ease in their
making generalised claims. The tool of visual discussion. This would not have been possible
analysis was used and based around the with the sample entirely focussed on youth
concept of ‘situating knowledges’ (Haraway, responses, due to the difficulty in accessing
1989), grounding the visual texts in local and groups of young people living with HIV within
actual practices and experiences in examining the city. The final sample thus included six
discourses and meanings. focus groups. Four groups of young people
By ‘situating knowledges’ in the case of the (15–23 years): one secondary school class
visual and discursive analysis presented here, (16–17 years), one group of peer sexual health
the aim of this research aims to consider how educators (17–19 years), one group of young
language, in its many modalities, simul- men who were MTV viewers at a connexion
taneously reflects and constructs the context centre (aged 15–16), one group of female MTV
in which it is to be found. Furthermore, viewers (17–23 years) who worked at a local
following Lury (2004), this research also aims cafe, and two groups of HIV support group
to go beyond the analysis of semiotics and service users (27–52 years). For reasons of
discourse to explore how branded media confidentiality, all participants have been
objects may be understood as a relational, given pseudonyms.
interactive media at the core of exchange The focus group interviewing allowed for
between producers and consumers. the exploration of key issues and initial
In terms of sampling, the research was not responses to the campaigns through semi-
designed to uncover a uniform or predictable structured discussions in response to cam-
reaction to media messages but to explore paign materials. The focus groups also pro-
discourses and forms of interactions in relation vided insights into collective attitudes about
to the campaigns and the brands. Statistical HIV campaigns5 and discourses around sexu-
representation was not therefore deemed to be ality and the media. The in-depth interviews
a determinant factor of the results (Bloor et al., helped achieve triangulation, providing greater
2001). Nevertheless, the design sought to reliability of responses by checking with
include a diverse cross-section of social classes, interviewees the themes that emerged from
ethnicities and experiences in relation to HIV the focus group discussions and also provided
awareness from across the city, representing the opportunity to explore recurrent themes in
the wide range of geographical areas and socio greater depth over the space of several
economic groups found within the parameters months.
of the city at the time of the study. The age The data was analysed in three stages,
sample of the focus group interviewees was beginning with the analysis of all transcripts
initially determined on advice sought by key by assigning index codes. The codes were
informants from the local sexual health and refined and new indexes were generated as
HIV support centres. Interviews with local categories and sub-categories became evident.
sexual health workers and MTV and Viacom After the initial coding was complete, the wider
campaign coordinators emphasised that young contexts and prevalent discourses of the inter-
people between 14 and 25 years of age were views and focus groups were examined. Major
the main targets for the campaigns and current themes and their relation to the geographic,
sexual health work. However, in order to 5
Campaign materials included outdoor and televised
address issues of race as well as include the PSAs, Staying Alive and Know HIV/AIDS brochures
representation of people living with HIV, two and website content.

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
96 Cheryl Martens

cultural and socio economic contexts of school students. Many recognised the Viacom/
participants were considered in addition to Staying Alive brand but didn’t engage with the
participant power dynamics within the focus meaning in the messages:
groups. Issues concerning gender, and ethnicity
and particular uses of discourses (or resistance For me, I saw the advert on the side of the
to them) became apparent at this stage. The final bus, I just thought it was an advert to sell
stage of the analysis involved considering the drugs [referring to Knowledge in a Pill
data in relation to the theoretical concerns of the advert]. (Billy-Jo 16)
research and wider campaign data generated
through other methods, such as campaign Yeah, I see those adverts, but I don’t really
brochures and websites. take them in..they’re just there, like, not
something I focus on. (Rich, 15)
Results Rather than recalling the of the adverts (i.e.
Branded ‘mediascapes’: campaigns in ‘Knowledge prevents HIV, fights AIDS, cures
everyday life hopelessness’), informants relayed their mem-
ories relating to specific images. They recog-
I saw it! But I didn’t get it. (Tim, 42) nised the iconography, such as the logos of
Staying Alive and Know HIV/AIDS, but they
The above quote by Tim, a 42 year-old HIV did not necessarily recall the messages. Ways in
positive male, is an initial response to a Staying which these were recalled differed in terms of
Alive outdoor campaign which appeared on how people identified themselves and their
the sides of buses in a city in Northern England particular context at the time of viewing.
in 2004 (initially branded ‘Know HIV/AIDS, When asked to recall any aspect of the
Figure 1). Tim recounted having seen the campaign, brand recognition of MTV and
advert at the bus station, but he did not Viacom logos was the main finding across all
consciously reflect on the meaning of the the groups. Respondents consistently recalled
message until he saw it again in the focus images, rather than text, and their interactions
group. Given the density of media messages with these images, such as paying attention or
encountered by informants, messages in out- tuning out. In the case of the Knowledge in a
door advertising and posters were usually Pill advert (Figure 1), many participants
interacted with as objects in passing, like viewed it as a drugs-related advert on first
billboards along the highway (Couldry, 2000). glance. Where they were and what they were
A main theme to emerge was how audiences doing (e.g. going to work, getting on the bus)
read adverts—in modes of distraction—as was integral to how the image was recalled.
they go through their everyday lives. This was a The messages were most notably related to as
dominant theme across all of the focus groups. fleeting images rather than something people
Tim’s response that he saw the campaign stopped to take time to read:
but ‘didn’t get it’ was echoed by secondary
Yeah, I saw that message on the side of a
bus, but I didn’t get it. (Tim, 42)

..Everybody’s busy these days and like

Victoria says, you might see that poster in a
bus station but you haven’t got the time to
stop and read it. (Craig, 37)

Figure 1. ‘Knowledge in a Pill’ advert, Viacom and MTV Although the commentary of informants
International, 2003–2005. focussed mainly on adverts they recalled from

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
Branding HIV/AIDS communication 97

posters ‘around town’, similar responses Aestheticising HIV/AIDS

concerning hearing/seeing but not consciously communication: knowing is beautiful?
taking in the messages were evident in relation
to other media, such as television. These With regard to the adverts that drew on
techniques of emotional branding and sensory
interactions also differed due to the possibility
of ‘timeshifting’ or fast forwarding through appeal, many informants emphasised their
interactions with images in these adverts. In
adverts and public service announcements on
the case of the Knowing is Beautiful adverts,
television. Rich, 16, an avid MTV viewer dis-
(Figure 2) they focussed on the images,
cusses how he usually responds to adverts on
without relating the content to the text
concerning testing.
The Knowing is Beautiful PSAs were read
Facilitator: Have you seen some of these
before on MTV? by informants within the genre of fashion
adverts, with little or no acknowledgement of
Rich: I’m not sure..don’t remember. the content of the messages. The focus,
particularly for young people, remained on
how the adverts reminded them of perfume or
Facilitator: So you don’t think you’ve
fashion adverts:
actually seen any of these before, even
though you often watch MTV?
That seems like its selling Calvin Klein or
Rich: Could have done but I usually skip something like that. (Tracey, 20)
the adverts.
I think it looks like one of those perfume
For both the images on sides of buses and
adverts you see in magazines. (Mike 19)
the adverts shown on television, participants
interacted with these as part of their broader
Viewers of the adverts located them as
‘media landscape’, which coincided with the
intended by the producers, within the frame of
way in which they interact with other media
a ‘cool fashion brand’. Whilst the majority of
adverts. This was done mainly through tuning
informants quickly placed and understood
in or tuning out when viewing certain images,
these adverts within the context of the fashion
depending on the relevance to their lives and
advert genre, when asked if they related to the
sense of group belonging. In the following
messages about HIV, few reported grasping
excerpt the young men who saw the advert
that the messages were related to HIV testing
tuned out, deeming the advert to be geared
or understood the pink plaster in the shape of
towards an older audience:
the symbol of an HIV test. The following
response to the Knowing is Beautiful cam-
It’s not set at the teenage market like, is it?
paign came from the HIV positive African
It’s for the older generation. (Tim, 15)
women’s focus group:
Well, it’s naught to do with us because it’s
like, they’re adults. You just see a tablet,
you don’t think nowt about it really. (Tom,

These findings share commonalities with the

findings that follow, whereby the importance
of relevance and group belonging can be seen,
both in relation to the content and aesthetics of Figure 2. ‘Knowing is Beautiful’ Viacom HIV testing
the communication. Campaign, 2004.

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
98 Cheryl Martens

Facilitator: Looking at that would you say Becky: I thought the second was because it
that’s a campaign about HIV/AIDS? was like a car advert...

Hilda: No Lily: Yeah, I thought it was a car advert.

Amy: No Facilitator: What made for the appeal of

that [syringe] one so strong?
Julia: No
Cathy: It’s really stylised

Kate: It doesn’t really say..Knowing is Group: (agreeing) It was, yeah

beautiful. Knowing what??
Don: It’s clean cut and laid out
Despite the text on the posters explicitly
calling viewers to ‘learn about HIV testing’, the Georgina: It’s kind of confusion at first and
HIV positive women did not initially decode you were like what’s that?
the message as pertaining to HIV education or
testing. The focus remained instead on the Lana: You had to watch it to get the story. . .It
images and the race of the actors in particular. was like a little film for me, actually. It did
The text that they focussed on decoding was remind me of a car advert. . .And the other
the title: ‘Knowing is Beautiful’ which they ones, just didn’t lead you in.
found arresting (‘Knowing is not beautiful’,
Amica 32) and difficult to relate to as women The peer educator group was critical of the
living with HIV. remainder of the MTV and Viacom PSAs
produced between 2004 and 2006. The PSA
featuring the syringe; however, received uni-
Responding to the aesthetics of the
versal praise. This group, also most closely
decoded the various messages according to the
The MTV ‘Syringe’ (2004) advert was found to intentions of the producers at MTV and Viacom.
be most engaging by the majority of respon- MTV viewing cafe staff also identified more
dents under 25. Produced by MTV in 2004 with with this advert than the others and considered
upbeat club music and close-up camera angles, it to be the strongest HIV awareness message
similar to those found in car advertisements, put out by MTV. One participant exclaimed,
this PSA provides a slow motion, close-up view ‘I’ll never look at sex the same way again!..that
of a shiny silver syringe in use. At the very end advert will be with me in bed for the rest of my
of the PSA a substance representing blood is life!’ (Tracey, 20).
introduced into the syringe. The music slows These responses contrast strongly with
and a young woman’s voice states: ‘you can get those of respondents who least identified with
HIV in three seconds and not always through this particular style of advert. The young men
sex. Never share needles.’ from the Connexions Centre focus group
The peer education for sexual health group engaged with the content of the advert by
discussed how they were struck by the visuals teasing each other about ‘diggin’6 and asked
of the advert at some length. They enthusias- each other jokingly: ‘you been sharing?’ They
tically identified with the advert for its were particularly dismissive of this style of PSA.
aesthetic qualities, and also for its exotic It did not maintain their interest, and one
‘scare’ factor (syringe in use): member discounted it by saying ‘I don’t think
any drug dealers would pay attention to that!!’
Don: I liked the second one, because it was (Tim, 15).
really slow and you could get into it.... ‘Diggin’ is used in this case to refer to injecting drugs.

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
Branding HIV/AIDS communication 99

Within the HIV support centre’s focus group Identifying with branded condoms does not
members, a single adult male in his mid-30s make using them necessarily any easier to
reported identifying with the aesthetic appeal incorporate into everyday life. Issues of power
of the adverts. This participant was also the in sexual relations are thus inseparable from
service group member who most regularly how people relate to and integrate condom use
reported regularly watching MTV. His first (Holland and Ramazanoglu, 1994) and will
response to outdoor PSAs for the Knowing is also be touched upon here. The discussion
Beautiful campaign was: ‘I think that that’s a will close with the changing way in which
really really important message to get across’ a service group member and volunteer ident-
(Bob, 34). ified with the objects in relation to his everyday
Drawn in to the adverts by their aesthetic life.
appeal and message to young people about The responses to the branded condoms by
testing, Bob considered these messages timely the secondary school and peer educator
in relation to what he considered a need groups were positive. The secondary school
amongst young people in the area for greater class focus group immediately remarked on the
awareness about testing. MTV Staying Alive logo on the condoms. They
However, the act of viewing is also a concurred with Billy Jo (16) that the ‘Staying
dynamic act, which happens over the space Alive means be safe’. The packets were
of time (Cronin, 2004). In future exchanges, considered ‘good and effective for selling’
after having viewed the entire campaign on the (Amanda, 15) and they also considered the
internet and having heard what others at the packets to be appropriately marketed to young
HIV support group thought of the campaign, couples. They were impressed by the attractive
Bob’s opinion of these highly aestheticised packaging of the condoms and considered that
adverts changed to anger and disgust: ‘They ‘it makes it stand out more that the money goes
make me right angry, those arty PSAs! They’re to HIV/AIDS’ (Katie, 16). The students framed
right offensive’. When asked what he made of their reflections concerning the condoms in
this particular campaign and the representa- relation to consumer identities: ‘people go for
tions it portrayed Bob replied: the price, then the product’ (Georgina, 17).
Two pounds for the condoms was considered
It doesn’t really represent the reality. It’s a to be ‘okay’ (Mandeep, 16) and ‘a reasonable
bit perverse in a way, though. Because its price’ (Katie 16). Not purchasing condoms did
almost fetishizing it really, and they are all not emerge as an issue. Condom use and
beautiful attractive people, and the vast purchase were voiced as an unproblematic
majority of ill people aren’t. part of sexual relationships and everyday life
by the young women. While the young men
Identifying with MTV condoms and
did not counter these ideas, they were much
less vocal on the subject than the young
icons of HIV awareness
The following discussion examines audience The Connexions Centre focus group, the
responses to and interactions with the branded most overtly brand aware of all the groups that
condoms distributed by MTV and other participated in the research, unanimously
consumer objects mediating HIV awareness resisted the idea of buying branded condoms.
raising, more generally. In 2004, in association Whilst there was a resistance to the branded
with Condomi Condoms, MTV ran a campaign condoms, it was less to do with the use of
selling condoms for £2 in Virgin record stores condoms than their purchase. Their engage-
across the UK. Responses to the campaign ment with this particular theme also demon-
varied according to how participants situated strated a display of macho attitudes, tied up in
themselves as consumers, according to gender, their ways of relating to the materials—
and/or their experiences of living with HIV. through jokes and by putting women down.

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
100 Cheryl Martens

They stated that they would not personally buy Connexions centre. These very same symbols
branded condoms in record stores (or any- of HIV awareness, however, were related to
where) nor did they think others would buy differently by people living with HIV, depen-
them. One respondent stated: ‘I wouldn’t pay dent on a range of factors. Service user and
two quid for them’ [Tom, 16]. In a later volunteer at the centre, Bob, discusses the
exchange with the young men it transpired significance of the red wrist band and how the
that they get condoms from a local clinic. They symbols pertaining to AIDS awareness have
also teased each other that using condoms was been incorporated into his everyday life in an
‘for dirty bitches’ and expressed that they were evolving way:
more concerned about Chlamydia than any-
thing else.
When I first went to SAN’s7 and did the
Not interested in ‘nice pictures’ on con-
volunteer training, there was a little band
doms, the consumer items that this group
that says ‘destigmatising HIV’ . That’s
emphasised through their appearances were
never come off since, and that’s really
brand name trainers, visual markers such as
symbolic to me and I almost..uh..I value it
arm bands, Burberry and branded accessories
as much as I value my wedding ring. . .its
around their necks. Rather than taking up the
so important to me. And its not embossed,
idea of purchasing MTV condoms they
its in the rubber, and I kind of like that,
suggested that HIV prevention and awareness
because I know its there, and people will
should be promoted through some kind of
see that. And you know, I know—this
campaign such as red wrist bands:
sounds really silly but—I’ve got a woolly
hat, with sort of a red ribbon on it, and
Tim: Do HIV and AIDS do like that football
actually since I’ve been involved with
band and that?...They have a black one for
SAN’s, I’ve actually been more confident
racism and stuff like that.
to wear that. And part of that is the fact
that being involved with SAN’s. And being
Dave: And they should have one for HIV!
involved in an organisation that has a
mixture of HIV positive and not HIV
Eddie: And everyone wears them.
positive people—that I know of—and
wearing the ribbon, makes me not feel
Tim: Footballers, especially.
that wearing the ribbon or destigmatising
HIV band kind of thing, doesn’t automati-
Eddie: People think, ‘Well, he’s got one, so I
cally say to everyone that you’re HIV
should get one!’
positive, which is how I felt before.
This exchange raises the issue of class in
The above quote demonstrates how Bob’s
relation to non-linearity and the importance of
interaction with and understandings of objects
iconic communication of information (Terra-
associated with HIV awareness have been
nova, 2004), whereby the ‘HIV awareness
influenced not by his changing identity and
community’ for these young people is based in
personal experience, from being an HIV
exteriorised and collective use of symbols. In
positive non-volunteer and non-service group
this case, they draw on footballers as potential
member for seven years, to becoming both a
points of connection between themselves
service user and one of the most active
and what they view as the ‘distant issue’ of
Although red wrist bands did not take place
via a set campaign, they did nonetheless get
distributed by the local HIV support group and 7
The organisation name has been changed to protect
were eventually worn by the young men at the people’s confidentiality.

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
Branding HIV/AIDS communication 101

volunteers within 6 months of him joining the excitement and interest in HIV education was
organisation. generated amongst them by raising awareness
via symbols, potentially supported by sports
personalities and celebrities. With regard to HIV
Discussion: identifying and interacting
support service user responses to the branding
with the brands HIV communication
and aestheticisation of the campaigns, the vast
The above findings demonstrate a variety of majority of participants felt left out of HIV
ways in which current HIV awareness messages prevention messages altogether. In the case of
‘fit in’ with people’s media landscapes. Partici- the Knowing is Beautiful Campaign, the
pants most commonly interacted with the women’s group of participants from the HIV
messages of HIV/AIDS communication as support group misunderstood the intended
objects in passing and not often engaged with message altogether and voiced their offence at
consciously. In some cases, the adverts were the campaign tag line.
seen as irrelevant or fast forwarded through by Considering the relations of participants—
target audiences altogether. The responses to most notably HIV service user Bob—towards
these adverts can be seen in terms of the context brands and icons of HIV awareness, such as the
of media overload (Couldry, 2000). The level of red ribbon illustrates that relations to these
(dis)engagement by participants also pertains to objects need to be understood in conjunction
the volume of information they receive about with changing notions of identity, based on
risks in their everyday lives (Van Loon, 2002), personal and group experiences. Bob’s initial
impacting upon the kinds of rational responses view of these items as ‘branding’ him as being
they make. However, in addition, the level of HIV positive initially over the space of several
engagement is demonstrably related to how months transformed to making him feel part of a
participants perceived the relevance of the collective engaged in destigmatising HIV and
messages in relation to their sense of group actively engaged in HIV education volunteer
belonging including gender, race, socio-cultural work. Bob’s response, in contrast to responses
positioning, personal experience and class. from other HIV negative participants who
Significantly, within the sample of young mainly related to objects as consumers, fore-
people and the HIV support group focus group grounds his relation to these items according to
participants there was a marked difference his interaction with them and his changing
between the groups of young people who sense of identity concerning his HIV positive
received HIV education sessions and were status. The engagement of Bob with these
involved in peer education, and the other objects and icons of HIV/AIDS awareness
participants. The participants who most ident- demonstrates how ‘mediated communication
ified with the MTV campaigns were not is always a contextualised social phenomen-
necessarily MTV viewers, but those who on. . .embedded in social contexts’ (Thompson,
identified with the campaigns’ marketing 1995: 11).
management’s aesthetics and values promoted
as part of the packaging of HIV awareness.
MTV condoms were most highly regarded by
middle class secondary school students, for This paper has explored audience interactions
example those who identified with the aes- and responses to branded consumer objects
thetics and values promoted by the MTV adverts and icons of HIV awareness, through a case
and who affirmed their trust in MTV as a major study of the widest reaching global AIDS
international brand. For the young working class campaigns in existence today, the campaigns
men at the Connexions centre—all of whom of MTV and Viacom. Examining audience
were MTV viewers—who put much time and interactions with the campaigns, it was
effort into external group markers, such as possible to gain an understanding of how
wearing Burberry, and other brands, greater certain hierarchies of gender, sexuality, race,

Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm
102 Cheryl Martens

culture and class presented in the campaigns dependent on socio-economic and cultural
were accepted and/or challenged. This may be factors, engage to a greater extent with the
seen as part of a spectrum of identification and aesthetic thrust and consumer orientation of the
participation with the media through which messages than others.
the messages are communicated. However, in
considering the wider marketing management
discourses and aesthetics that make up the Acknowledgements
campaigns, it is possible to see how those most
receptive to the campaigns were also most The findings presented in this article are based
likely to take up the discourses and find appeal on doctoral research completed at the Univer-
in the experiential marketing techniques used. sity of Manchester on HIV/AIDS campaigns and
In both the focus group and in-depth changing modes of communication. The
interviews, participants did not respond pas- author would like thank the focus group
sively to this new genre of branded and participants and interviewees who partici-
aestheticised adverts. Despite the use of the pated in this study and the article reviewers
signifiers of difference and multiculturalism, for their insights. The author would also like to
youth and agency via consumer ‘choice’, the acknowledge invaluable support received on
focus groups demonstrated strong disassocia- earlier drafts of this paper by Dr. Graham Kirk-
tions with regard to the messages. So called patrick and Dr. Sonia Bookman.
‘groups at risk’, including the young people
and ethnic minorities that the campaign
claimed to target often rejected or disasso- Biographical note
ciated themselves from the messages and the Dr Cheryl Martens is a Senior Lecturer in the
media through which they were communi- School of Creative Enterprise, London College
cated. The strongest identification with and of Communication, University of the Arts
participation in the campaigns came from London, where she teaches Marketing Com-
groups that shared many of the middle class munications, Media and Cultural Studies.
aesthetic values and tastes that constituted the
advertisements. Participants of middle class
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Copyright # 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., February 2010
DOI: 10.1002/nvsm