Could marketing help prevent the spread of HIV?

26 Oct 2010|Added Value

The stats are ugly. According to 2008 statistics, 12 million women in sub-Saharan Africa are HIV positive.  And in that year alone, an estimated 1.9 million people contracted the virus. By 2015 15 million children will be orphans. And then there is India. And China.

HIV is not just a disease, it is a plague strangling the future of the developing world.

Much has been written about the advances in the treatment of HIV. Billions have already been spent on the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in Africa alone, to improve the quality of life of those brave enough to seek out testing and treatment. But mainstream media has so far largely ignored the strides scientists have already made towards a reliable preventative solution.

Roughly half of all HIV research is now focussed on prevention, either via the creation of a vaccine or, more recently, the topical use of microbicides to prevent infection occurring in the first place.

In the case of microbicides, women can now simply insert a gel capsule a few hours before sex (lipstick, perfume… gel) and their risk of infection will reduce. The results from the most recent clinical trials revealed in Vienna in July suggest that the product is getting closer and closer to being launchable. The science will improve, the percentages will get better, but infection levels will not change until women discover that prevention is possible and decide to change their behaviour accordingly.

Earlier this year, the scientists behind microbicides started to realise that for every percentage improvement in efficacy, a percentage improvement in adoption will produce a more significant return. A solution is at hand, but women are going to have to want it.

We were approached by and invited to partner them in illustrating how marketing could encourage the adoption of microbicides by women in Africa.

The central question? Could marketing reduce the spread of HIV?

We needed to explore the psychology of young African women, their attitudes, and beliefs about sex and the possibility of contracting HIV. We held a series of initial conversations with sexually active young women in Cape Town and Johannesburg. By no means a comprehensive examination of the subject, but enough to frame the challenge and inspire some initial ideas.

Any good GU medic will tell you that the only thing people lie about more than money is…sex. And in African culture (and in many other cultures for that matter…) there is a massive disconnect between what the culture says about sex and what people actually do. The population is very geographically mobile and promiscuity is not uncommon. For years the Mbeki government equivocated over the very existence of HIV and years later, despite the extremely high risk of infection, very often even educated young women simply prefer not to think about the risk. In many cases, they appear to carry on regardless in a bizarre game of African Roulette.

So how do intelligent people blind themselves to the risks? There are many dimensions to this conundrum.

In theory, sex before marriage is taboo and in many traditional African cultures, female sexual behaviour in particular is just not discussed. You are not supposed to be having sex, so you are less likely to  be comfortable discussing, even with friends who are also sexually active, the associated risks.

Set against this, HIV scaremongering appears to have reached saturation point. Everybody knows HIV could kill you and nobody wants to think about it. It’s a bit like telling a life-long smoker that if they carry on smoking, they will die prematurely.

The cultural identity of people infected with HIV does not help. Poverty, exclusion and the prospect of a long and painful death at a terrifyingly young age. The concept is too horrifying to engage with. It’s much more comfortable to believe that it just won’t happen to me.

And even though there has been a huge increase in female empowerment (following on from the role played by women in the struggle against apartheid), the overall balance of power still lies with men and nowhere is this more apparent than in negotiations over sexual behaviour. Ultimately, the decision to use a condom or not still often belongs to the man.

The combination of all these factors means women are continuing to put themselves at risk. Without an easy remedy that they themselves can implement, it’s simply better not to know.

And as one of our respondents painfully described, “Ignorance more than anything is what’s killing us in Africa.”

So what could we do to re-frame the mind-set and persuade young women to integrate microbicides into their lifestyle?

Off the back of our insight work, we developed 3 alternative positioning platforms and initial communication directions.   All three were designed to turn the problem on its head and frame HIV prevention as a positive part of everyday life.  Protecting yourself from HIV is as simple and natural as brushing your teeth…

Route 1
Young women in South Africa have an intoxicating sense of possibility. They have freedom and opportunity in a way that their parents could only dream of and they want to seize it with both hands. Using microbicides is an act of liberation.

Route 2
We called this Anticipation. On Friday nights across SA, girls are excitedly getting ready for a big night out. Who knows what may happen. Why not make microbicides the first thing they put on?

Route 3
Young woman know the dangers. They just don’t want to think about them. They need something simple, practical that they personally can do to reduce their risk of infection. No fuss, no frills, no labels. As easy as taking care of your skin.

The purpose of this exercise was to inspire the scientific community by providing a vision of how microbicides could eventually be brought to market.

We are continuing to work with MTN and its partners in South Africa to explore how microbicides could be commercialised most effectively. It’s what we mean when we talk about Branding for Good.

by Paul McGowan, Chief Marketing Officer, the Added Value Group

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