New York Times Examines Cell Phone Soap Opera Campaign to Promote HIV Awareness

January 26, 2009

The New York Times on Sunday examined a campaign that aims to provide women with messages about HIV awareness, safer sex and condom use through a series of soap opera episodes that can be viewed on a cell phone. Rachel Jones, assistant professor at Rutgers University's College of Nursing, developed the project after working as a nurse practitioner and interacting with young women who were aware of the risks of unprotected sex but still did not use condoms.

According to Jones, the soap operas will target black and Hispanic women. According to the Times, about one-third of the 35,300 HIV-positive people in New Jersey are black or Hispanic women. In addition, about eight out of 10 new infections will affect women in these two groups, the state Department of Health and Senior Services reports. To create the dialogue and storyline for the films, Jones held focus group discussions with young women from these ethnic groups and generated ideas from their experiences. Jones said the "soap opera format provides an opportunity to identify with the heroine and make more powerful choices after they see her make more powerful choices." In addition, cell phones allow women to have privacy when viewing the episodes and enable them to watch them repeatedly, Jones said. Martinique Moore, an assistant director of the project, said safer-sex messages need to reach beyond pamphlets and billboards. Moore added, "A lot of young people get their cues from music videos."

The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey provided $154,400 for the project, and NIH recently granted $2 million for a study assessing the effectiveness of the campaign. According to Michael Castlen -- executive director of PCI-Media Impact, an organization that has broadcast more than 240 radio and television dramas with social messages in 27 countries -- "[p]ublic service announcements are very effective in getting people aware of an issue." However, "they are not intended to actually change behavior," he said (Hughes, New York Times, 1/25).

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