20 Oct 2021

I am a passionate believer that sex edu-tainment is the key to transforming essential health messaging into engaging and entertaining content to help young people make positive decisions about their relationships, their rights, and their lives. And by using relatable storylines and characters set across sub-Saharan Africa and in India, the drama series MTV Shuga set out to do just this. But while my fervent belief is probably not enough to persuade those that question what impact such a behaviour-change and service demand-creation campaign can and is having, a new study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) provides an emphatic answer. Our model works. The recent evaluation of MTV Shuga Down South set in South Africa, reveals that young people who watched the series were twice as likely to get tested for HIV, twice as likely to know their HIV status and twice as likely to be aware of PrEP, a drug taken regularly by HIV-negative people that reduces the risk of getting HIV. Given that South Africa has the biggest HIV epidemic in the world - with 7.7 million people living with HIV - and was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to fully approve PrEP - this matters and is making a difference.

Alongside these new findings, another evaluation, this time by Tulane University, has found that after watching the MTV Shuga Naija series set in Nigeria, women were more likely to use modern contraception, victim-blaming attitudes significantly decreased around gender-based violence amongst both men and women, and girls and boys were more likely to open up to their parents about sexual violence. So we are rightly proud that after over a decade of creating entertaining, relatable and engaging content, discussing difficult topics in an open and honest way and driving our young viewers to find positive ways to deal with issues is having a real impact and changing lives.

The MTV Staying Alive Foundation has entertained and educated young people in 72 countries, via broadcasts in 720 million homes and peer-educators reaching another 215,000 young people. But we know that reach alone is not even close to proof of concept. Which is why these latest evaluations are so important because they directly address the question ‘does investing in media, change behaviours?’ Well, the answer is that MTV Shuga is doing just that, across countries, and deeply within communities. And of course, we remain confident in knowing that we are a strong investment, with the World Bank’s estimate that for every $1 invested in MTV Shuga, $150 is returned in health and welfare benefits to communities.

What MTV Shuga does so well is that via entertainment, we work directly with our audience to increase awareness, demand, ability, motivation and ultimately create a willingness to follow through on owning their own sexual health.

But is it needed? Absolutely, and even more so as a result of COVID-19. The pandemic has tested our model in real time and our response is the MTV Shuga Alone Together series which sees characters from six different countries connect via video calls as they navigate their ‘new normal’ under COVID-19, delving into untold stories of life in lockdown – with themes of gender-based violence, fake news, and mental health, alongside crucial health messaging about the pandemic. Critically, the need continues as Covid-19 has exacerbated the lack of information and stigma around sexual health and HIV prevention with many health services being closed down and even when reopened, young people were not always aware of them. Our edutainment campaign model is demonstrating the potential for wider health initiatives for young people as the pandemic continues.

The beauty of MTV Shuga is that it has longevity, it’s adaptable and it’s flexible: and we have empirical evidence that it works. The goal for the next decade is to ensure that MTV Shuga works even harder; that we find partners to enable us to ensure that there’s more equitable access to the content, so that we’re able to reach young people where they are, wherever they are, to enable us to have the widest, deepest impact with our audience… while continuing to keep them entertained.


Georgia Arnold, Executive Director, MTV Staying Alive Foundation