Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chile: "Dying of old age is much more fun than dying of AIDS!"

The funny thing about the two previous posts on a controversial new HIV prevention ad released last week by by the New York City Department of Health is that I had already planned to write about the topic --- if only because the Chilean government also launched a number of problematic HIV prevention public service announcements earlier this month.

For example...

"It's the worst campaign in the history of ad campaigns against AIDS" said Chilean HIV prevention and AIDS treatment advocate Manuel Jorquera of the non-profit organization Vivo Positivo ("An avalanche of criticism against anti-AIDS campaign", IPS, Dec. 8, 2010).

The campaign is the first launched under the conservative government of President Sebastian Piñera and it shows. Of three different PSA's launched, none address increased HIV risk among Chilean men who have sex with men directly, and all end with the potentially stigmatizing question of "Who has AIDS?". (as a matter of fact that's the name - in Spanish - of the website in which the campaign is hosted: ).

The most influential LGBT rights organization in Chile, the Homosexual Movement for Integration and Liberation (MOVILH) expressed concern that the ads reflected a socially conservative morality as well as a religious vision of what HIV prevention should look like ("MOVILH questions 'rigidness' of HIV numbers among gay men and repudiates campaign", Noticias123, Dec. 6, 2010).

In this ad a female model is made to look "sick" with the help of make-up artists. The signs read, chronologically, "flu", "mumps", "conjunctivitis", "chickenpox" and "vitiligo" - with the accompanying visualization of each illness - until you reach the end of the clip and the model is shown with full make-up, a healthy smile and her hair blowing behind her - along with a sign that reads "AIDS".

The ad, of course, plays into the beautiful femme fatale stereotype, not necessarily explaining anything about how HIV might be transmitted, but playing up the fear that a beautiful woman might be a temptress hiding her HIV status. "AIDS cannot be seen," the ad says at the end, "but that's not a reason to turn a blind eye".

In an opinion piece that ran Sunday in the online portal of the newspaper El Mostrador, Cristián Cabalín and Macarena Peña y Lillo pick up on the campaign's failures ("Governing without condoms"). A translated excerpt:
The [campaign's] results are clear: mixed messages that don't provide specific information or specific answers. Ads that omit mention of high-risk populations and cannot connect with the audience. Announcements that take advantage of crude humor, ignoring the objective of raising the awareness and education a public health campaign needs to be effective.

It is noteworthy that the audiovisual messages do not make reference to the population at greatest risk in the country: Men who have sex with men. One-fifth of this group are HIV-positive according to data from the Health Ministry itself, and the latest UNAIDS report states that only 56% of them use a condom during sexual intercourse. Internationally, experts agree that this is where the focus should be, however, the Chilean authorities seem to have turned a deaf ear.

The campaign chooses to extol traditional values. Perhaps the best example is the spot where an old man dies while sipping tea and then his wife dies next to him, as both hold hands, with their marriage rings highlighted. The scene is wrapped up with the slogan "Dying of old age is much more fun than dying of AIDS; and, if you die with your life partner, it's that much better."

In our culture, death has never been something "fun". Similarly, the message shows dying of AIDS as the opposite of dying from old age. However, thanks to medicines currently available through our healthcare system, many HIV positive individuals can actually die of old age. It's one of the conceptual errors contained within the campaign.

The spot ends with "Protect yourself against AIDS, be faithful." If the purpose of this ad is to prevent HIV transmission within a marriage, it fails on two points. One, fidelity is not that can be promoted in a television spot, it has to do with personal beliefs and values. Two, in the message, there doesn't exist a direct link between faithfulness and AIDS prevention; in other words, it doesn't establish a clear link between the promoted behavior and the expected response.

Rather, this ad is a defense of the traditional idea of a family, where HIV infection is a threat to that ideal construction of marriage. The public service announcement seems more appropriate as a as a depiction of a government-sponsored marriage anniversary celebration than a campaign against AIDS.
I should ad that the campaign has added three videos since it was launched, none of which address the gay population. And that humor, which seems so out of place in the leading ad on top of this post, can indeed be used to disseminate an effective prevention message. Case in point: This.

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