New THT ad takes tired old approach

Britain’s largest HIV organisation, Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), has just launched a new safe sex campaign advertisement, misleadingly titled “Condom Moment”:

New it may be, but it feels awfully familiar.  For reasons I’ll explain, as a piece of marketing it makes literally no sense, but as a safe sex advertisement, it’s totally recognisable.  That’s interesting in itself: it suggests the safe sex campaign has become a genre.  Like harrried-mum-with-air-freshener and car-on-a-winding-road-with-Sting-or-Enya clips.  No longer trying to persuade anyone of anything, you’re just taking up time before you shove your logo in front of the audience to maintain brand recognition.

That sucks because it seriously constrains your options for future innovation.  It’s like the joke about two old men who’ve been fishing together for so long they have numbered their jokes.  “No. 45! — and they both fall about.  A new guy tries it on, “no. 92!” and they scratch their heads: “Are you sure you’re telling it right?”

As marketing this piece makes no sense because it’s a condom ad that fails to sell condoms.  It starts with couples getting frisky in unusual places, then presents a slow-motion montage of grim faces, frowning, anxious, fearful, awkward, pulled out of the moment by a rising crescendo of worried whispered thoughts.  As a fairly think-y person, this resonated with me; it often takes me a while to shut down my brain and just get in the moment.  But then the ad ends and coloured text appears, telling the viewer to use condoms.  And that’s not an ending, it’s a Powerpoint slide.  Whatever happened to ‘show, don’t tell’?

The ad could have shown one of the partners whipping out a condom and the other showing visible relief and redoubled enthusiasm as their worries evaporate and they get back into the moment.  You know, actually marketing the product, i.e. condoms, and the benefit, worry-free sex.  Instead, they stuck to the genre of the safe sex PSA, concluding with an imperative textual instruction.  At which point I was literally shouting at my screen and calling for the campaign manager’s head… I really need to dial back my coffee intake.

In the comments, someone objected to the stereotype of gay men getting it on in a toilet, and THT made a very telling remark in reply:

We agree it would have been fantastic to have more couples in different locations, but – with a limited budget and tight schedule – we understand why the team who donated the clip had to focus on the most visually compelling shots.

As a social marketer this rang some Big Ben-sized alarm bells for me.  ‘Donated’ is not a good word in this context.  It’s hard enough getting an agency you’ve commissioned to stick to the brief, as I have personally and recently experienced, but it’s even trickier when the agency is donating the work.  You need a lot of clarity in the roles each party will play in co-constructing the message.

In this film, there is some evidence of front-end input of focus group or interview findings on the reasons people give for not using condoms, but it flubs the ‘product P’ — one of the most basic elements of the marketing mix.  It looks like the film maker was either briefed badly or didn’t take the brief, but it ends with the THT logo and so they’re ultimately responsible for it.

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