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Sunday, February 01, 2004 - Page updated at 08:19 P.M.

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Seattle agency's 'issue' ad to precede Super Bowl

Kay McFadden
Seattle Times TV critic

A public-service spot produced by DDB Seattle will be the first of its kind to air during a Super Bowl presentation. It's part of a campaign to increase public awareness of HIV/AIDS.
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Despite making a fortune from Super Bowl commercials, the National Football League and broadcaster CBS are notoriously picky when it comes to "issue" ads. Executives dislike controversy even more than a blowout game.

Nevertheless, new ground will be broken when the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers meet Sunday.

For the first time, a public-service spot on HIV/AIDS — created by a Seattle advertising agency — will air during a Super Bowl presentation.

"It wasn't so long ago that the words HIV or AIDS were not spoken on TV," said Candy Cox, a managing partner at DDB Seattle. "Now we are using our most powerful communications tool to educate people about this epidemic worldwide."

The 20-second spot opens with a desolate shot of a dingy urban alley, where winds blow trash around and rattle the lid of a garbage bin.

"Twenty million young lives thrown away," says a voice. "That's how many could contract HIV worldwide in the next few years. But it doesn't have to be like that."

The lid of the trash bin suddenly opens, and people — mostly in their twenties — unfold from it, helping each other climb out. More and more exit until the alley is filled.

"HIV is preventable," ends the narration. "Go to"

In a beer- and babe-filled commercial universe that stretches from early morning to midevening on the West Coast, the "Know HIV/AIDS" spot might seem antithetical to the loosely defined spirit of Super Bowl XXXVIII.

After all, NFL officials just weeks ago turned down U2 frontman Bono's offer to perform with Jennifer Lopez a song he wrote about the AIDS epidemic called "An American Prayer." An NFL spokesman said "it wasn't appropriate to focus on a single issue."

And CBS recently rejected spots from the liberal group and from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), noting the network has a long-standing policy against advocacy advertising.

So what made "Know HIV/AIDS" different?

A delicate balance of several factors, beginning with its co-sponsors: the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on sexual-health issues, and media conglomerate Viacom — which happens to own CBS.

For the past two years, Kaiser and Viacom have partnered on a campaign to increase public awareness and learning about HIV/AIDS.

This has taken the form not only of public-service spots but of finding ways to develop scripts with story lines about HIV/AIDS. The strategy has been employed at Viacom networks.

"We've run spots fairly regularly and look for more high-profile opportunities, like the Grammys," said Martin Franks, CBS executive vice president. "And this was a terrifically well-done spot. So why not the Super Bowl telecast?"

Despite the support of CBS, the "Know HIV/AIDS" spot will air during the pre-game portion rather than the game itself.

Franks explained, "We thought it had a better chance of punching through to people in the pre-game. We just didn't think it fit with the humorous tone of the ads during the game."

Viacom provides free airtime for the HIV/AIDS commercials generated by its partnership with Kaiser, a value Kaiser puts at around $200 million for 2004.

Conversely, the anti-drug abuse and anti-smoking spots that will air during Sunday's game — regardless of tone — are paid for by their sponsors, which entitles them to select a time slot.

A second factor in CBS agreeing to broadcast the HIV/AIDS spot was DDB Seattle's approach to crafting a message.

The agency's executive creative director, Fred Hammerquist, supervised the project.

"We knew it needed to communicate to the general population more than anything else. We didn't want to turn anyone off," he said. "The Super Bowl audience is distinct, and you can't make a message too complex or too political or go over people's heads.

"So what I looked for is simplicity," he added, "which in advertising is so hard to do."

The spot was taped in Brussels, Belgium, with European production company Czar. Among those featured are dancers from The Ultima Vez Dance Troupe.

DDB Seattle is long familiar with handling touchy issues. The agency's issues-and-advocacy division handles work on aging, the environment and gay and lesbian concerns.

Another well-known Seattle group has a less-obvious connection to the HIV/AIDS spot: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Tina Hoff, vice president and director of entertainment media partnerships for the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the Gates foundation has provided seed money for raising awareness of the international HIV/AIDS epidemic, including Sunday's ad.

Hoff also credited Kaiser's reputation with securing a first-time Super Bowl spot. "I think the difference with our campaign is, we're not advocacy; we're interested in spreading information," she said. "We're not supporting any specific policy. We're very much about education."

Last year, the Kaiser-Viacom partnership yielded numerous spots on HIV/AIDS. Four were produced by DDB Seattle.

The aim this year is to achieve even higher visibility, beginning Sunday.

"We're stepping our way through the door," Hoff said. "Getting on the pre-game show is good. The Super Bowl is the cherry on top of it all."

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattle or 206-382-8888.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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