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
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
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
Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business
for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management.