May 28, 2009

Who are you?

In 2009, the organization I worked with – loveLife – turned it’s HIV prevention strategy towards addressing the social determinants of HIV – poverty; unemployment; lack of access to health care and education; low social solidarity; lack of self-worth, belonging and identity, etc. In truth, HIV is a symptom of society's much deeper problems.

This integrated (as opposed to simply medical) approach to HIV prevention really spoke to me – clearly if you don’t believe in yourself or your future life-chances, what’s the point in protecting yourself? Unprotected sex, drugs, alcohol – they’re all a means of escape from the very difficult life you live. As one young boy from rural SA once told me, “I don’t care if I die at 40 or if I die at 60 because everyday feels the same as the last.”

My task upon arrival was to figure out which of the social determinants to focus the media campaign around and then come up with a creative that made sense. Definitely one of the hardest and most complex projects I’ve ever done.

After much research and discussion, we chose self-worth and identity to focus the media campaign around – it was clear this was the root of the root. We came up with a creative campaign that provided young people with a secret formula to success – L2M3: loving life, making my move.

We then used all kinds of guerilla tactics to get that creative out – graffiti, projections on to malls, mobile teaser campaigns, underground t-shirts, unsponsored celebrity branding, etc etc…

Here are just a handful of the images:

Much harder than launching the campaign was trying to figure out how to create :60 television and radio commercials that could speak to such complex topics. I’m not sure we got it 100% right, but I do think it was an awesome creative effort to tackle something incredibly difficult.

Here’s the logic behind the commercials and their creative execution:

“Self-worth and identity are part of loveLife’s “Make Your Move” strategy, which addresses the social determinants of HIV. Despite high levels of awareness and knowledge about HIV and how to protect themselves from becoming infected, young people, especially those in marginalised communities, tend to tolerate risk more due to their perception of a lack of immediate possibilities. loveLife’s strategy aims to help young people develop initiative, better deal with day to day pressures and link them to opportunities – giving them a reason to protect themselves from HIV because they are working towards a better future.

Self worth and identity are key to this objective. To make a move, young people must first believe they can. And to know which moves to make, they must first know who they are. Research indicates that young people who know who they are and what they believe in are better able to negotiate difficult situations (i.e. people who know they will not have sex without a condom can better navigate that situation than people who aren’t sure how they feel about the issue). It is also clear that young people who believe in themselves and their ability to have a better future are more likely to protect themselves from HIV.

Each of the four PSAs form a strategic arc around self-worth and identity. The creative concept is to provide tough questions without providing answers, and each PSA presents the main character’s alter ego - as opposed to an adult or voice over telling them what to do. This keeps the pieces from being judgmental and shows young people having an internal dialogue around these issues, thus provoking other young people to have that dialogue with themselves. Additionally, identity and self-worth are a lifetime’s journey and there no right or wrong answers, and positive behavior change is more likely if it comes from within a young person his/herself.

The first PSA, “Who are you?” introduces the audience to the question of identity. It asks young people to think about who they are, without providing answers or placing judgment. The first PSA’s objective is to get young people to look within themselves.

The second PSA, “Do you disappear without your gear?” speaks directly to the role of materialism in defining self-worth. Many young people think that if they have the hottest clothes or latest “things,” people will “see” or notice them, seemingly reinforcing their self-esteem.

“Do you disappear without your gear?” aims to provoke young people to think about who they are beyond the fancy “things”, asking them that if all of those things didn’t exist, would that change who they are? The PSA also aims to show young people that what is most important is who you are, not what you have or don’t have – as each and every person is someone of worth.

The third PSA, “Who are you without your crew?” looks at the issue of peer pressure. We know many young people identify themselves by their friends; we also know that friends are an important aspect of a young person’s life. The PSA does not judge this. Rather, it asks young people who they are beyond their friends, further asking them that if their friends are involved in negative things, what does that mean for who they are?

The final PSA, “I am somebody,” is a conclusion to the questions in the first three. Here we address the concept of relational self-worth - we know that worth is defined not only by what you think of yourself, but also by what other people say to you. In the “I am somebody” PSA, our heroine projects all of the negative messaging she’s heard throughout her life. As she hears this negative messaging, which is structured around key issues – social polarisation, economic polarisation and gender inequity – she begins to find her own resolve to move beyond the negativity. At the end of the PSA, she perseveres beyond the negative messaging and realises that she does have worth; she is “somebody” and she makes her move."

Overall, reactions to the campaign were positive. Much work still needs to be done to explain to the public why self-worth and identity are important issues around HIV prevention. But the questions themselves and the creative around them really hit home with SA youth.