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“VD is for everybody”

November 3rd, 2010

Dr Petra

good time girls = VD

There’s been a lot of interest online today about a 1969 Public Service Advert – ‘VD is for everybody’, which shows a range of people who could have a sexually transmitted infection. You can see it here:

Having been flagged up on Boing Boing debate has centred on whether the advert was counter productive and seemed to endorse STIs, or whether it was highlighting how anyone could be at risk from infections – even ‘nice’ people like you (as the song goes).

What’s interesting about this advert is it’s not unique in public health messaging around STIs. In fact the ‘you can’t tell by looking’ theme has run across sex advice campaigns for years. For example this 1948 US advert for the US Navy shows you can’t be sure who has an STI (while rehearsing the women-blaming angle that can often subtly or not so subtly underpin campaigns of this kind – see also the ad at the start of this post!).

It’s also found in this UK public information advert by the Department of Health’s ‘Condom Essential Wear’ campaign.

@mngreenall has found a couple of international examples such as this Nigerian campaign featuring Femi Kuti
Femi Kuti HIV
And this more sinister advert from Kenya’s Ministry of Health
Kenya Skeleton HIV

While South African HIV prevention organisation LoveLife have a fascinating overview of their media/behaviour change campaigns. A similar global archive of different sexual health campaigns (some commercial, some governmental) can be found at the wonderful Sex Smart Films.

The plan within all of this kind of messaging is to challenge the stereotype that STIs can only affect certain people and that anyone could potentially get or share an STI. They also flag up how many STIs can be symptomless so you may not always know you have one. The former two adverts focus on telling people about risk and where to get help, while the latter one focuses on risk and prevention (condom use). That may say more about changing cultural values in media to allow prevention messages to be shared. Often symptom and treatment messages are easier to talk about in health media, although even then barriers can exist over how frank an advert can be.

Debates continue on how best to share STI messaging in public health campaigns. Humour, blame, shame, fear or reassurance can (and have) all been used to try and get the public to be more aware about their sexual wellbeing. Critics often claim hosting any campaign that talks about STIs frankly could ‘glamourise’ them or make it seem they’re ‘acceptable’, or only appeal to the ‘worried well’. While defendents of public sexual health campaigns argue adverts can destigmatise STIs, alert people to the risk of having an infection, encourage getting tested, and make it clear they are commonplace but that doesn’t mean they’re problem free and shouldn’t be tackled.

Practical barriers can also impact on sexual health media – politicians may be anxious about endorsing widespread public health campaigns on this issue. Charities and NGOs may run campaigns but often from particular positions (meaning some messaging can fit the blame/shame angle more than others). Television companies can also be skittish about what advertising they’ll allow and ad agencies may be keen to create something that’s shocking or visually striking but may not be particularly helpful or accurate.

Unfortunately in a lot of cases adverts are not run for any length of time, nor is their impact evaluated. Indeed for many governments, charities or organisations the belief that an advertising campaign has reached the public is seen as the end of an intervention. The aim of adverts like this are usually to raise awareness AND change behaviour, but follow up to see if any impact has been made in either category is not always carried out. Meaning it is often difficult to be sure what, if any, impact such campaigns have had. (A good review on mediated public health campaigns can be found here which explores this issue in more depth).

The ‘you can’t tell by looking’ advertising message is not unique to 1969. Indeed it was being used long before this date and continues to be used globally in sexual health information programmes. Seeing what messages have been used in the past allows us to consider whether they may still work in the future, what other approaches you could try instead, and most importantly to ensure any public health campaign starts with a built in evaluation plan to assess impact.

It’s great people have been thinking critically about public health messaging on STIs, so while people are eager to talk about it why not think about why kinds of campaigns you would like to see – and share examples of good and bad messaging you find online.

Update: Thanks to all of you who’ve been sending me examples of media campaigns for sexual health, I’ll add more as I get them – and any evaluations of activity also welcome!

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