First Lady Laura Bush recently announced at a swanky conference hosted by former President Bill Clinton that the U.S. government will pledge $16.4 million to install merry-go-rounds that double as water pumps in rural areas of Africa.
Of the patented device, Bush said, “Play pumps are fueled by an endless energy source: Children at play.”
The device is produced by a for-profit advertising company called Roundabout Outdoors, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Roundabout Outdoors sells advertising space on billboards placed around a 30-foot high, 660-gallon storage tank that holds the water pumped by the merry-go-rounds.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a press release about the First Lady’s announcement. “Each pump reserves two of its four billboards for social and public health messages,” it said.
The Development Marketplace division of the World Bank, which gave $165,000 to pay for PlayPumps in 2004, noted that “Educational advertising content is provided by loveLife … the key to its approach is getting South Africans to talk about sexuality and reproductive health issues.”
loveLife is a South African charity that targets messages about AIDS awareness to adolescents ages 12-17. Photos on the HHS website and the PlayPump website show photos of the merry-go-rounds next to loveLife ads.
One of the campaign’s recent ads says: “Face It: HIV loves skin-on-skin.” Another ad produced by the company shows a man on top of a woman in bed with the message “HIV Wants you. Face it.” Complaints have been made that loveLife’s advertisements are sexually explicit and inappropriate for young people.
In an August 2006 piece, New York Times editorial writer Tina Rosenberg wrote after traveling through rural areas in Africa where the ads were displayed: “Virtually every South African adult I met thinks that the messages on loveLife’s billboards — the media most visible to adults — are incomprehensible.”
In January of this year, the U.S.-funded Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria ruled that loveLife would not receive the $56 million that had been allocated for the organization as a part of the second half of a $68 million five-year grant.
“loveLife is a victim of international politics…squeezed between the ideological right and progressives,” loveLife CEO David Harrison said at the time.
“The U.S. was using its influence as the Global Fund’s biggest donor to push its abstinence-only agenda, lobbying against programs such as loveLife, which advocated a broader approach for HIV prevention that included condoms,” reported the Africa News.
The other half of the advertisements on PlayPumps water towers are sold to private companies. Advertisers have included Unilever, ColgatePalmolive, Teikom and Sasko.
The pumps cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to install and money earned from advertising contributes to maintenance costs. If the merry-go-rounds are turned 16 revolutions per minute, they can pump 370 gallons of water per hour.
Mrs. Bush made her announcement of funding for the merry-go-rounds at the 2nd Annual Clinton Global Initiative that benefits the William J. Clinton Foundation. CGI is an exclusive networking conference for high-profile business and political leaders, who pay $15,000 to register for the event. At the event itself, members are asked to pledge money to global projects.
At the conference, Mrs. Bush called on other organizations to join her alliance in their goal of installing 4,000 of the merry-go-rounds in sub-Saharan Africa by 2010.
When asked how Mrs. Bush found out about PlayPumps, the First Lady’s Spokeswoman Lauren Donahue said, “Mrs. Bush has always been interested in public-private alliances.” The program will be funded through a partnership among U.S. government agencies, the Case Foundation and MJC foundation. USAID and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) will be contributing $10 million and the Case Foundation has committed $5 million to the effort.
Roundabout Outdoors has shown strong interest in targeting school children with advertisements. In 2001, the company lost a lengthy legal battle over rights to advertise on a billboard on government school property in South Africa.
Business Day, a South African newspaper, applauded the company’s decision to advertise on water tanks near merry-go-rounds. Business Day said, “So you get water, advertising mileage, smiling happy children and goodwill — an ideal opportunity to spread the anti-AIDS message in rural areas where it is most needed.”
Playpumps Director Mark Melman told the publication, “It’s all about location, location, location.”