AIDS-prevention ads off to slow start

January 12, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Staff Writer

So far, the federal campaign of explicit AIDS-prevention advertisements has reached few Marylanders and created no sense of urgency among television networks.

The $900,000 campaign, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), targets young adults 18 to 25 and promotes condom use by the sexually active.

One spot features an animated condom package that scuttles from a dresser drawer into the bed of an unseen but amorous couple.

In announcing the campaign Jan. 4, health officials said the four major networks had agreed to run the ads. But only ABC has started; the debut came that night during an episode of "NYPD Blue."

Local TV and radio stations won't receive the messages until sometime next month.

ABC will continue to show the ads as part of its routine public service rotation, said Janice Gretemeyer, ABC's vice president of public relations.

But none will run during family-oriented programming, and additional tag lines promoting abstinence were added at ABC's request, she said.

How often the network will run the AIDS-prevention spots is uncertain.

As with all public-service announcements, it depends on the availability of time -- "for example, if an advertiser drops out," said Ms. Gretemeyer. "I can't tell you on a weekly basis how many [may] run."

At NBC, the commercials also have received tag lines promoting abstinence. The spots have been approved for use but not scheduled yet, said Deborah Thomas, director of corporate communications. "We will schedule them in the next few months," she said.

CBS and Fox also haven't scheduled any of the AIDS-prevention spots in their programming. A CBS spokesman said the commercials eventually will be aired, but Fox was noncommittal.

Two factors help account for the campaign's slow start: the chancy nature of all public service advertising, and the controversial, condom-based message of this effort.

Every public service announcement (PSA) faces tough competition, according to local station managers.

"I watch every tape that comes in, and believe me, in any one week we could receive up to 500 requests for public service time. [We get] everything from chicken dinners at a church to a health spot from the CDC," said Sharon Wylie, public affairs manager at WBFF-TV, Channel 45.

Said Emily Barr, assistant general manager at WMAR-TV: "There are many more PSAs than spots to put them in."

Another fact of life is that networks and affiliates traditionally have been reluctant to air any advertisement that mentions condoms -- even ads produced and paid for by manufacturers.

"There are certain cultural taboos and that is one of them," said Eric Haley, who teaches advertising at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and does research on public service announcements.

"The networks try to appeal to the widest possible number of people and try not to offend anyone, because when they offend people they lose ads and revenue," said Mr. Haley.

Until now, the CDC's AIDS-prevention campaigns had shied away from any direct mention of condoms. The six informational campaigns released under the Reagan and Bush administrations only alluded to the contraceptives; one ad showed a young man slowly pulling a sock over his foot while discussing AIDS, as though to send subliminal messages about condoms.

By contrast, the Clinton administration's ads often include the line "latex condoms are effective in preventing the spread of HIV when used consistently and correctly."

In one commercial, a man and woman kiss, their silhouette visible against a darkened doorway. She unbuttons his shirt. He takes off her earring. She asks, "Did you bring it?"

"Uh-oh . . . I forgot it!" he says.

The woman says, "Then, forget it," and the lights go on, ending the romantic moment.

Because of its explicit nature, the AIDS-prevention campaign drew immediate criticism from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and lobby groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition and the Family Research Council.

Sensing that the ads would be controversial, the CDC intentionally delayed their release to local TV and radio stations around the country, said a spokeswoman for the agency.

She explained the strategy: The government, as sponsor of the campaign, would "take the hits [of criticism]" at the outset, making it easier for local stations to run the ads later.

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