Visual communication as social activism has its roots in the Postmodern design movement that began in the 1970s. As artists and designers reflected on and rejected the “universality” and rigid formalism of the Modernist tradition, interest grew in eclectic expressions of visual communication based on the idea that “history, culture, gender, and ethnic identity existed only in systems of representation” (Drucker and McVarish 2013, 289). 

Designers of this era took particular interest in social justice topics, including feminism, race, and especially the AIDS epidemic. Activist groups put their experience toward widespread public awareness campaigns designed to change public perception and behavior. “On particular issues, such as the education of at-risk communities and the broader public about AIDS, safe sex, and homophobia, these groups were enormously successful” (304).

The above examples both address the stigma around HIV/AIDS and the challenges in particular that the homosexual community (as in Figure 1) and women (as in Figure 2) faced in terms of visibility/awareness/advocacy and receiving accurate and timely diagnoses, respectively. 

Though the AIDS epidemic has been contained in most parts of the world, the crisis in Africa has continued. As of 2015, though countries in Eastern and Southern Africa amounted to only 5% of the global population, it was home to half of the world’s population living with HIV (Levy 2015). In response to the continued crisis in Africa, the MTV Staying Alive Foundation launched an ambitious project to reach youth with factual information and change perceptions of and stigma against HIV and AIDS. 

The project, MTV Shuga, is a television drama launched in 2009, featuring local talent portraying characters who navigate complex relationships and cover topics that are highly specific to each region and demographic: transactional sex, HIV testing, multiple partners, negotiating safe sex, supporting victims of gender-based violence (GBV), living with HIV, HIV stigmatisation, HIV disclosure, supporting friends living with HIV, rape in a relationship, abortion (dangers of traditional medicine), negotiating safe sex, unplanned pregnancy, controlling a relationship, choosing when to have sex, contraceptive use, sexual grooming, and being born with HIV (Levy 2015). 

By using local (culturally and contextually relevant) talent to model desired behaviors and conversations about sexual health with characters that are culturally and contextually relatable, Shuga equips viewers with the language and information they need in order to have informed discussions about their own sexual health, pursue appropriate medical care, and remove/reduce fear and stigma about sex and HIV/AIDS. “The complex relationships between the characters not only entertain, they serve to highlight important themes related to sexual and reproductive health…Ultimately, MTV Shuga examines the ramifications of sexual decisions on the lives of young people, their partners, and their loved ones…” (Shuga 2015).

The first iteration of Shuga was filmed in Kenya, and ran for four years. MTV tasked researchers from Johns Hopkins University to study the impact of the program after the first season:

“Their study found they were watched by a very high proportion of the target audience of people aged 16 to 24 — 64% in Nairobi — and young people said they understood and thought about its messages.

More than 80% of those who saw Shuga believed it changed their thinking about multiple concurrent partners, HIV testing and the stigma associated with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS” (Kelland 2010).

Based on the success of the first run of the show, consecutive seasons were filmed in Nigeria and South Africa, with seasons planned through 2022. More recent iterations of the show have added social media, radio, OOH and event-based marketing to enhance the engagement and increase avenues for communication
with the target populations. 

A more recent study based out of MIT found that Shuga made significant improvements in knowledge and attitudes towards HIV and risky sexual behavior, that viewers of the show are twice as likely to get tested for HIV, that female viewers have lower incidence of STDs, and that all of these effects are stronger with viewers who reported being more engaged with the narrative – an effect they say is “consistent with the psychological underpinnings of ‘edutainment’” (Banarjee et. al., 2019). The show also influenced viewers to share knowledge and information about HIV transmission with friends
and family (Ogunmwonyi 2019) – suggesting that the messages in the show are accessible and memorable enough for viewers to receive and again retransmit to their social circle. 

Works Cited:

Banerjee, Abhijit V., Eliana La Ferrara, and Victor Hugo Orozco-Olvera. The Entertaining Way to Behavioral Change: Fighting HIV with MTV. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2019.

Drucker, Johanna, and Emily McVarish. Graphic Design History: a Critical Guide. Pearson, 2013.

Kelland, Kate, and Reuters. “MTV AIDS Project Changes HIV Attitudes.” The Hollywood Reporter, July 20, 2010.

Levy, Julie. “MTV Shuga – A Multi-Platform Communication Initiative Achieving HIV Behaviour Change for Adolescents in Africa.” The Communication Initiative Network, November 23, 2015.

Ogunmwonyi, Abi. “HIV Study Announcement.” Staying Alive Foundation, September 30, 2019.

Shuga, brochure from the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, sent to The Communication Initiative by Mario Christodoulou, March 27, 2015.


Mann Global Health. Marketing Case Study Series: MTV Shuga Case Study. (Online: Mann Global Health, 2019).

Vourlias, Christopher. “Viacom and Turner Targeting Africa’s Millennials With Multi-Platform Offerings.” Variety, November 9, 2016.

  • Share: