The World vs. AIDS, 2004

Loving Life After World AIDS Day

In South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, a train winds its way through the undulating hills. On board, six young people with HIV or AIDS, along with celebrities from local soap operas, television, and radio, are doing their bit to raise AIDS awareness. As the fanfare that surrounded World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 died down, loveLife—a program to staunch the rate of HIV infection among young South Africans—is preparing to do battle with AIDS for another year.

In the country with the highest number of people infected with HIV in the world, loveLife is an example of something that appears to be working in the fight against AIDS—an attempt to escape the hand-wringing that can characterize debate about the pandemic.

LoveLife appeared in 1999 with a high-profile launch and a sustained media campaign. Its billboards typically featured postmodern designs in bright colors that depicted the pieces of a jigsaw, or single images with cryptically clever questions. In one, a bunch of funereal flowers was backed by the question: “Which of your lovers decided your future?”

Too eclectic for some, loveLife still managed to insert itself into the popular consciousness. Four years later, “It enjoys very high levels of association,” said chief executive David Harrison. Surveys show that eight in 10 youths have heard of it, while more than 85 percent identify “very strongly” with its messages.

Yet loveLife escapes easy categorization: It cannot be viewed as a “project,” a “plan,” a “policy,” or any of the “p’s” to be found in the world of HIV and AIDS prevention. Instead, it has positioned itself as a “brand.”

“Our starting point was trying to understand where young people were at, post-1994 (the date of South Africa’s first democratic election). And we found that, after a massive electrification program, there was a huge increment in exposure to television,” said Harrison. This prompted young people to aspire to certain glamorous and “cool” lifestyles, he said, and to the idea that owning brand-name products was a way of appropriating these lifestyles. LoveLife followed this trend by adopting a hip and colorful image.

Critics said the messages might work for urban youth, but could be lost on rural youngsters—a point Harrison disputes: “There is no difference in aspiration. Rural young people are very aware and brand-sussed.”

LoveLife initially focused on billboards but now publishes youth news supplements in newspapers with wide circulation. The loveLife hot lines logged well over 2 million calls in 2002. Patrons include former President Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and popular politician Patricia de Lille. These people joined others in fronting a campaign for parents, urging them to “love them enough to talk about it”—the “it” being sex.

LoveLife believes that the three keys to reversing the rate of infection among young people are to get them to delay their first sexual experience, to reduce the number of sexual partners they have, and to encourage sexuality within
committed relationships.

“The really important thing is that there is a massive opportunity to change the course of the infection,” Harrison says. “Virtually none of this generation of 14-year-olds are infected,” he notes, adding that keeping them that way was the key to “turning the tap off on the epidemic.”