The pro bono work for PSI gave me the chance to pull together everything I’d learned thus far about reaching young people — the power of media, the appeal of celebrity and music, and the importance of appealing to kids’ self-image. I asked the owner of ProTV, the main broadcast network in Romania, if he would donate airtime for us to develop a television show called In Bed with You. We invited prominent people onto the set, which featured a big heart-shaped bed, to talk with young people about sexual issues. The celebrities discussed their first experiences and their regrets about having sex too early or without protection, and the kids then shared their stories with the celebrities. The show was a massive hit. Naturally it caused controversy, because Romania is an Orthodox country, but that just meant that even more people talked about it. Safe sex was finally trendy!
Next we launched a brand of condoms, subsidized by the Dutch government and distributed by PSI, called Love Plus. Free condoms were already available, but were not well regarded. The for-profit companies had expensive, branded condoms, but people couldn’t always afford them. We sold Love Plus for pennies, with cool packaging and a cutting-edge marketing campaign, and filled that critical gap between the government and the private sector. We also produced a series of very funky TV commercials for Love Plus condoms: One of an old couple being naughty in a photo booth, and another of kids going up and down in an elevator. It was all about making the brand affordable, accessible, and desirable, just as you would market a can of soda. I asked all of my clients, for-profit companies like Coca-Cola and Ballantine’s Whisky, to get involved as sponsors. Their reward was fantastic publicity.
One of the big factors in the spread of AIDS in Eastern Europe (as in Asia and Africa) was the commercial sex industry, which is patronized mainly by transient workers such as truck drivers. So we thought, “Why not go to the root of the problem?” Rather than throw a party in a nightclub, we chartered a brothel in Bucharest. We threw a killer event, the party of the year, for Love Plus. We brought in high-profile rock stars and models. Of course the press came, and many news outlets in Romania ran a story on it. The message got out. We produced a segment for a local news program called Atomic TV around this party with the message “It’s cool to protect yourself.” In one year, we increased condom use by 100 percent. This was a huge source of satisfaction for me; together with our corporate sponsors, we were saving lives — and we could prove it.
At this point, in August 1999, I went to South Africa for a vacation. While there, I visited some townships, and saw funerals on every corner. That was when I learned the devastating extent of the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. Romania was not experiencing anything like it. AIDS was destroying an entire generation of people in sub-Saharan Africa and creating a generation of orphans. And I thought, “Why can’t I do what I’m doing in Romania on a worldwide scale?”
If I’d made that trip today, I might not have had the guts to try this. But when you’re 29, you think you can do anything, and I decided I was going to go to the United States and rally the government, the corporate sector, Hollywood, the music industry, and potential donors. I left South Africa after three days, determined to start by tapping an existing health organization through which I could find support. PSI gave me an office in Washington, D.C., and a salary. That’s how YouthAIDS was born. And then I did the first thing I’ve always done when I needed help in a new country. I called MTV.