News Analysis: Condoms get a fashion makeover

The Government's much-trumpeted adult sexual-health campaign is to proceed on a fraction of its original budget. Sarah Robertson asks PROs if the revised strategy can still reach the young target audience effectively.

The Government is desperately trying to curb Britain's soaring rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and last week launched its most significant health campaign since the famous ‘Aids: don't die of ignorance' offensive in the late-1980s.

The Department of Health will not confirm how much of the £50m originally earmarked for marketing the drive (over three years) will be available. But the first year's budget is a relatively meagre £4m.

The campaign, being promoted by Harrison Cowley (PRWeek, 17 Nov), has therefore been blighted by concerns over its funding.

The fresh promotional effort, badged ‘Condom ­Essential Wear', aims to ­persuade youngsters that condom use
is normal.

It targets 18 to 24-year-olds and aims to influence long-term sexual behaviour.

Government strategists have identified three stages of the target market's relationship with condom use: ‘accept, carry and use'.

TV, press and PR will promote the ‘accept' phase of the campaign, ­encouraging people to believe that condoms should always be used.

Online, radio, ‘partnership marketing' and ‘stakeholder marketing' will focus on the ‘carry' theme, targeting young people as they plan a night out.

The ‘use' stage will see partnership activity and ambient material in bars, clubs and holiday resorts delivering timely reminders as people get closer to the point of having risky sex.

Below we ask four PR professionals  for their views on the campaign.

THE DOH AGENCY'S VIEW

Rebecca GUDGEON, executive director, Harrison Cowley: ‘The strategy positions condoms as a must-have item to an audience heavily influenced by fashion brands. This campaign is edgier than before and encompasses TV ads.

‘The most significant difference between this and the one we have handled over the past four years is that it targets 18 to 24-year-olds rather than 18 to 34-year-olds. There is a vast difference between a 24-year-old who tends to socialise a lot, and someone in their 30s who is more likely to have children.

‘The campaign will target publications such as Nuts, which will be more useful than placing generalist messages in magazines such as Men's Health. The tone of lads' mags will allow us to be more creative this time around. DoH research shows barriers to condom use include the belief held by young people that STIs will not happen to them, that they are not a big risk, and that you can tell who has got an STI by looking at them. This campaign dispels these myths in a way that resonates with our target audiences.'

THE PR PROFESSIONALS' VIEWS

Rebecca FINDLAY, comms manager, Family Planning Association: ‘The White Paper said this campaign would have £50m funding - but only £4m has emerged. This is a shame, not only because there is less funding but because the media are not talking about sexual health but about money.

‘One of the reasons why there is such an increase in STIs is because there has not been a sustained public awareness campaign on sexual health.

‘The fact is that people get embarr­assed about condoms, they think they represent promiscuity or that they make their willies look strange. This campaign tackles that head on, positioning condom use as normal.

‘The campaign includes the creation of a website for health professionals that allows them to share best practice, which is a positive tool to introduce. The innovative thing is that this campaign puts its messages into places such as bars, clubs and holiday resorts via ambient media. It will not be effective on its own, however, it needs to be backed up by good services.'

Lindsay FRANKEL, deputy editor, Company magazine: ‘Targeting 18 to 24-year-olds will always be difficult for a government: it is hard not to be seen as patronising.

‘If it is Patricia Hewitt asking a young audience to use condoms it is not really communicating with young people on their level.

‘But fair play to the Government for using a fashion theme with this campaign, which is enterprising, although it does feel a bit like they are trying to be, rather than actually being, young and trendy.

‘This campaign is a bit like watching grown-ups at a disco. But it is a difficult message for a government to communicate to young people. Unlike us, they cannot really acknowledge that unprotected sex happens because they could be seen as advocating it. But magazines can go a step further to advise getting tested after making a mistake -which we all know happens.

‘Attitudes are slowly changing. Going to the "clap clinic" is no longer just for naughty girls and boys. We have been campaigning for young people to take chlamydia tests for three years.'

Yusef AZAD, director of strategy and campaigns, National Aids Trust: ‘How effective this campaign will be depends on how long it can sustain media interest. It is scheduled to run for three years, but will the DoH attract coverage right throughout this period?

‘The department also needs to make sure it spends as much of the allocated money as possible. The campaign has good messages and the DoH needs to remember the basics because the more the messages are communicated the more impact they will have.

‘The Government also needs to look at what Primary Care Trusts are spending on health promotion: the campaign needs to happen on many different levels, including national and local.

‘PCTs need to be running sexual education programmes in schools and youth clubs, and investing in campaigns and condoms.

‘Money allocated for sexual-health services has been used to plug financial deficits at a local level, so we need to look at how we can ensure money committed to public health is used properly.'

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