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YouthAIDS founder Kate Roberts is marketing safe sex to the masses.


Drink Coke. Chew gum. Wear a condom. To Kate Roberts, the British-born mastermind behind the AIDS-awareness organization YouthAIDS, there should be no difference in the way these messages are presented. If consumer products can be sold to the masses, why can't social responsibility? "It's the same strategy," she says. "You have to make something desirable, available, and affordable."There's no question that Roberts, 40, knows how to sell. In the mid-1990s, at the Moscow and Bucharest branches of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, she spearheaded campaigns to promote products like soda and cigarettes to the youth of newly capitalist Russia and Romania. While living in Eastern Europe, Roberts made the party circuit, dated a Romanian rock star, and even endured a kidnapping attempt by the Russian mafia, but her whirlwind high-society life took an unexpected turn in 1997, when she was approached by the nonprofit Public Services International to develop a pro bono advertising campaign for AIDS awareness in Romania.As with her commercial work, Roberts's goal was to make the youth market crave what she was selling-in this case, a decidedly unglamorous product: condoms. "We would take a packet of unbranded condoms and completely revamp it," she says. "We'd give it a name, give it an image, and make the product desirable. Because these promotions were done in a very cool and hip and relevant way, the kids were more likely to use this condom." Thanks to her campaign-which included a documentary film, a TV show, and a series of underground parties-condom use in Romania doubled.
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Today's youth never saw those really scary, in-your-face, aggressive PSAs.
In 1999, burned out from the combined demands of her big-budget advertising work and her pro bono efforts, Roberts booked a three-week vacation to South Africa. Once she arrived, she found it tough to relax. Passing through Cape Town, she witnessed funeral after funeral; mourners weeping for their friends, siblings, children-all victims of AIDS. Confronted with the bleak evidence of the disease's staggering global impact, Roberts was compelled to take action: "So many people are living in poverty and contracting HIV," she says. "I thought, Why not do what we're doing in Romania, but do it all over the world?"Soon, Roberts moved to Washington, D.C., and-with the backing of PSI-launched YouthAIDS, dedicated to preventing the spread of HIV around the world. In the nine years since, she's used her insider's knowledge of what makes consumers tick to create compelling, provocative ad campaigns, both for YouthAIDS and for a new initiative, Five & Alive, which fights global health issues like malaria, malnutrition, and pneumonia.For both programs, Roberts employs a nimble advertising strategy. "It's about being creative and finding the right partnerships with the right media partner, corporations, and celebrities," she says.YouthAIDS has tapped into many circles of the media world, using everything from a Wyclef Jean concert to a global shopping day as platforms to promote its message, but one of the organization's greatest coups is the recent "Hear No Evil" campaign, a collaboration with Aldo Shoes. The campaign has reached an estimated billion people worldwide.Commandeering the attention of nearly one-sixth of the planet's population may seem like a dizzying feat, but Roberts says her work is far from done. According to a recent survey by UNAIDS, a joint program of 10 United Nations organizations, nearly 7,000 young people are infected with HIV every day across the globe; the demand for AIDS awareness and education remains as urgent as ever.Today's youth never saw "the shocking images of Freddie Mercury or Rock Hudson dying, or those really scary, in-your-face, aggressive public-service announcements" that were omnipresent in the early days of AIDS, says Roberts. "All the global tragedies, like earthquakes and cyclones and the war, are dominating the media today, which makes it harder for this pandemic-which is one of the biggest pandemic of the 21st century-to get airplay. It's up to organizations like mine to make it relevant again."