It's OK for the US government to ruffle a few feathers in itscurrent AIDS education push

The federal government wants to stop the spread of AIDS, but not if

it means offending little old ladies in Dubuque, IA.



OK. That might be an exaggeration, but not a totally inaccurate

paraphrasing of a recent report produced by Health and Human Services

Inspector Janet Rehnquist, who looked at some of the AIDS prevention

programs funded by the federal government and concluded that some

encourage sexual activity, and others may even meet the legal definition

for obscenity.



One program that drew particular criticism was the "Great Sex Workshop,"

which examined ways to reduce the spread of HIV in the context of

exploring ways to make sex more "safe, erotic, and fun." Another, called

"Booty Call," included material on the taboos of sex, along with

information on avoiding injury and disease.



Under Centers for Disease Control guidelines, health education programs

can't contain material that is obscene under the Supreme Court's

definition: "Whether an average person, applying contemporary community

standards, would find the material appeals to prurient interest, and

whether the content lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or

scientific value."



Now, many might say that saving those at risk from AIDS constitutes

serious political or scientific value, but that has not curtailed the

predictable moral outrage from those who feel the government shouldn't

promote sex at all - particularly homosexual sex.



That outrage ought to be irrelevant. If this is a public health

initiative, the only pertinent question is whether the programs meet the

public health objective of preventing the spread of AIDS. I don't know

how effective they are, because Rehnquist's report doesn't address that.

But if they are effective - and AIDS activists argue provocative content

is needed to counteract the increasing apathy toward the disease - then

they should continue, regardless of whether we find their content to be

in poor taste.



Because once the government makes moral judgments about the content of

these programs, they are no longer about public health; they're about

imposing the administration's values. In that case, they ought to be

funded by some other agency.



The effectiveness of a communications program should be judged on how it

resonates with its target audience, and whether it achieves the desired

behavioral impact - in this case, safe-sex techniques. How little old

ladies in Dubuque - or civil servants in DC - respond should not be an

issue, because we're not trying to change their behavior.



That's true for corporate PR too. Benetton took heat last year for ads

that interviewed death-row prisoners that offended many, but was

entirely appropriate for the company's culture and its youth market. You

can't please all the people all the time, and sometimes you shouldn't

even try.



Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business

for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management.



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