Interview with Joey Rasdien, The Voice of Scrutinize

He's best-known for his clever, very South African brand of humour, but comedian Joey Rasdien doesn't joke about one thing: the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Rasdien is the voice behind Victor, the main character in the hugely successful Scrutinize series of animerts (animated advertisements), that aim to get people to examine their lifestyles and change their behaviours, particularly when it comes to HIV/AIDS prevention.

The Scrutinize campaign has been sponsored by USAID, the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa (JHHESA), and the popular commercial brand Levi's.

"God has blessed me in certain things, and I have an influence on popular culture. I am taking that responsibility seriously," says Rasdien, who apart from his comedic talent is also a successful actor and musician.

"More often than not, you don't have opportunities to influence people the way you want to, in a positive way. And then Victor comes along ..."

For Rasdien, standing by and not doing anything about an issue as important as HIV/AIDS is simply not an option.

"I don't want to say, 'it's not my problem'. If you walk past a hungry person and you only have old bread, are you going to say you have nothing? That old bread is going to make a difference to him."

Rasdien was originally approached by Cape Town advertising agency Matchboxology simply to do Victor's voice, and in a brainstorming session he uttered a favourite phrase - and it led to the campaign's name, and a critical part of its message: "Eliminate the element of surprise - scrutinize."

So why is it that Victor's message appears to be hitting home more than other HIV/AIDS campaigns have? Well, says Rasdien, it's because Victor is like the people he speaks to, and they can relate to him.

"Victor has the ability to speak to the target market in a way that doesn't preach," says Rasdien. "You buy into the character first, and then the message.

"Look, people are going to shag until the end of the world, and that's a fact ... Scrutinize gets people to examine their behaviour, and then change it. Your using a condom, or going for a test, won't happen without you changing your behaviour first."

The Scrutinize television campaign has been supported by a roadshow to university and college campuses all over South Africa, featuring Rasdien - and he's been surprised at what he's seen.

"The people at varsities are quite clued up (about HIV/AIDS) - I think Scrutinize was making a difference before we even got there."

On some campuses, most students appear to know their HIV status, which Rasdien describes as "brilliant". Older students, too, appear to be in monogamous relationships or abstaining from sex, but the challenge lies with younger students, who are taking risks with multiple partnerships and transactional sex - where they trade sex for material items.

And here Rasdien makes a point about multiple partners, the current focus of Scrutinize: it's a good thing that more and more young people are using condoms, but having more than one partner - even if one uses protection - is still irresponsible behaviour.

"If a guy comes to me and says he shagged five girls this weekend and he used condoms, I'll say that's right, but it's not cool."

He'll keep supporting Scrutinize, he says, "until they fire me - and I hope they don't".

About Scrutinize

Scrutinize is a public health campaign which encourages the Youth to "scrutinize" or understand their risk of HIV infection in relation to multiple concurrent partners, correct and consistent condom use, transactional sex (sex for money), intergenerational sex (sugar daddies) and alcohol use.

Scrutinize is a national campaign being undertaken by the JHU Program in South Africa and funded by USAID/PEPFAR.