Using media for good: MTV Shuga’s role in promoting sexual and reproductive health among youth

MTV Shuga
Johanna Theunissen, Communications Officer, Baylor College of Medicine Children’s Foundation Malawi/SHARE staff

One of the most powerful plenaries during AIDS 2018 took place on the final morning, under the theme Building bridges for the next generation, featuring MTV Shuga, a behavior change and demand creation campaign which seeks to impact young people and fight HIV.

MTV Shuga has run six television campaign cycles throughout Africa, reaching 720 million households in 79 countries on 180 channels. The campaign also includes peer education, digital media, graphic novels, and on-the-ground activities.

Stephanie Sandows

Stephanie Sandows, who plays Tsholo on the program and introduced the session, pointed out that “Non-traditional media campaigns have a vital role to play in changing the sexual and reproductive health of young people.” Her character experiences devastating, and ultimately fatal, gender-based violence from an older partner.

“These stories are hard and horrific,” she said. “But they need to be told…That is why a campaign such as MTV Shuga is so important - because it addresses the challenges faced by adolescent girls and young women head on. It shows us how to protect our sexual and reproductive health, reinforces the message that gender-based violence is categorically wrong in all its guises, and highlights where we can seek help when we need to.”

Co-star Given Stuurman plays Reggie, a 17-year-old South African who struggles with his sexuality and eventually embraces his identity as a gay man. “When I was told I was going to play Reggie, MTV Shuga’s first gay character, I was thrilled to have been given the privilege to bring this story to life,” he explained “At the same time, I realized the heavy responsibility of carrying Reggie’s soul on my shoulders. When I was playing Reggie, I saw the weight of discrimination and stigma faced by those in the LGBTQ+ community. For me, this is the most important story that MTV Shuga has ever told.”

Georgia Arnold, Executive Director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, explained the campaign’s four-part model, which “positions young people as trusted, credible and meaningful partners and incorporates young people in every stage of the campaign cycle.”

Demand design: The team holds workshops and focus groups with young people before developing any campaign or script. The information they collect informs the content and helps structure the storylines.

Demand generation: Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) messaging is embedded into the content. In addition, viewers are directed to relevant service providers. In South Africa, MTV Shuga partnered with Marie Stopes International, which experienced a 20% increase in calls to its helpline after featuring the service at the end of each episode.

Demand conversion: “Giving people information is not enough,” Arnold declared. “Turning demand into real action is a difficult process.” This includes marking out a path for young people to access SRH services.

User enhancement: To stay relevant, it is critical to be able to adapt in real time and respond to the evolving needs of the audience, Arnold noted. MTV Shuga does this through in-show polling, digital media, and on-the-ground activities. “This approach generates a feedback loop with users which constantly harvests their thoughts and preferences, allowing us to tailor our approaches to suit them and in response to them.” MTV Shuga received ¼ million responses to its in-show polling on key questions around SRH and HIV in South Africa and adapted the episodes to address knowledge gaps.

MTV Shuga “There is one final ingredient that is important to note,” Arnold added. “This is being able to use the MTV brand, which is recognized, respected and trusted by young people worldwide. It gives us access to a boundless pool of insights among young people.” This includes social media use, the music young people are listening to, and new trends. “We need to have open, honest, and respectful conversations about sex, but it is still difficult to talk about,” she said. “We speak with young people in a way that resonates with them, in a place they are comfortable with - behind their screens - and in a manner that reflects their everyday lives.”

MTV Shuga’s assertion that its approach can change behavior and attitudes and generate demand for services is backed up by evidence: a World Bank Development Impact Evaluation team conducted an independent evaluation (randomized control trial) in southwest Nigeria among 5,000 youth aged 18-25 years. Those who watched the show were twice as likely to test for HIV six months later, and there was a 55% reduction in sexually transmitted infections among women who watched the show over six months. Those who watched the show also chose to have fewer and safer sexual partners.

Independent evaluations are starting up in South Africa and Côte d'Ivoire as well. It is important to understand the role these behavior change and demand creation campaigns have in addressing the HIV epidemic, Arnold shared. However, she emphasized that success is possible only by working together, creating a broad coalition of partners and building on each other’s expertise. “We are your bridge,” she said. “We can create behavior change and demand around your scientific innovations and then drive youth to your services where they can get the treatment they deserve.”

Given Stuurman

Arnold ended by reflecting on the initial public skepticism that media could affect people’s lives in a positive way. “Telling stories can be far more powerful than we ever imagined,” she said. “It is how you decide to tell such stories and through which mediums that dictate whether we can save young people’s lives or not.”

Watch the plenary session here.