On sexist social marketing

In her TED talk Amy Lockwood talks about selling condoms in the Congo. She shows examples of condoms given for free by NGOs, international organisations or the government. She mocks their designs because they use pictures and slogans highlighting things such as ‘prudence’, ‘protection’, ‘trust’, the AIDS ribbon etc… She goes on to say that this is not what people (understand men) have on their mind before buying condoms. No, they think about ‘SEX’ (apparently it needs capitalised letters). So she gives examples of a different kind of packaging used by private companies – which are ‘incredibly provocative’ (understand ‘they objectify women’).

She argues that the problem with donor/ government condoms is that they make the messages for their first audience (donors, politicians, agencies, international organisations, NGOs) which like to see such values associated with safe sex unlike the private companies who are only thinking of the consumer. But, it seems they are going wrong. They should be using half-naked women (that’s my interpretation of her comments).

‘It doesn’t really matter what you’re selling. You just have to think about who is your customer? What are the messages that are going to change their behaviour? It might just save their lives’

So, what is wrong with this talk?

Well – what isn’t wrong with it?

Her argument makes sense in a way: If a certain strategy is the most effective in changing people’s behaviour, let’s pursue it. While this is a great logic if you are trying to get people to buy a fizzy drink or tomato soup, it’s not so great when you are trying to fight HIV/ AIDS.

The problem with HIV/ AIDS is that a lot of structural barriers exist – they are macro-level barriers such as HIV stigma, poverty and also gender roles.

Gender roles as a driver of HIV have been the subject of many studies. This is also due to fact that in many high-prevalence countries, the social group with the highest prevalence are young women (15-24 y).

While there is no one way in which gender roles affect HIV transmission, often the problem is that women are not empowered enough. They are not part of the decision of whether to wear a condom. They can be scared to be seen as promiscuous if they ask their partner to wear a condom or they feel obliged to conform to the man’s desires.

So, by using pictures like these,


we are not changing anything about the perception of women’s and men’s role in society.

I know that one condom packaging might not make a huge difference overall, but this does not justify the use of pictures that objectify women. A change of perception will not happen overnight, but we have to try- step by step. It is important to speak out against the use of social marketing in HIV prevention.

If you look at the theory, the same problem emerges. Social marketing is based on the principle that messages are embedded in the social environment. So, what do we do if the social environment is conducive to more infections? Selling more condoms will make a minimal difference. And Amy Lockwood is trying to be impactful by stressing that this kind of strategy will save lives. But actually changing the perception of the role of women and the role of men will save more lives.



  1. Duncan W says:

    Sounds like the talk was good example of ‘TED-talk’ism’ where a superficial observation is packaged as revolutionary insight. I wish that there was a bit more space for debate around TED-Talks, although they are sometimes interesting ideas its hard for them to have value if they don’t come with a bit of critical analysis and reflection like this blog.

    On Amy Lockwood’s talk I imagine that they would argue that – yes,sure they are not addressing the root-cause – but they are making a real practical difference in the short-term and once health and education improve you get in to a virtuous-cycle that means that other work eg gender equality becomes much more easy. What do you think about that? Should we just do whatever makes the biggest practical difference to behaviour or should we orient all of our work around values?

    1. Chantal Foyer says:

      Yes – agreed. The advantage of speaking at a TED talk is that nobody can ask questions! How wonderful for the speaker! And although the TED website has space for comments, I must admit, it’s not a comment section I frequent!

      Yes – it certainly is an argument and I think that finding the balance between short and long term goal is an eternal challenge – and I can definitely see the value of social marketing. However, in this case, there was scope to not use naked women (also why use white women?) – in my opinion, other things can evoke ‘sexiness’ – other than a woman’s body!

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