"Obviously, they don't look much like condoms -- they have arms and faces and they talk," said Canadian film-maker Firdaus Kharas, who spearheaded the project to make the 20 short cartoons.
They are called the Three Amigos and they are making condoms and HIV/AIDS household topics in South Africa, where frank talk about sex often has been taboo.
"They're non-threatening and they're funny," Kharas told United Press International.
The public service ad campaign, run on a shoestring budget out of Kharas's Ottawa home, began earlier this year. The South African Broadcasting Corp. is running the 60-second adventures of the Three Amigos up to 20 times a day.
There has been only one complaint. "An American Baptist wrote to say that abstinence was the best way to go," Kharas said. "I wrote back ... that not getting in a car was probably the best way to avoid dying in a crash. But if you're going to drive, you put on your seat belt."
The United Nations estimates one in five people in South Africa is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That makes it one of the hardest-hit nations in the world.
An open discussion of safe sex is essential to slowing the infection rate, said Angela Stewart-Buchanan, media director for the South African anti-AIDS Love Life campaign.
The Three Amigos "have certainly got a lot of people talking about it," she told UPI. "There's a lot of humor," which helps to get the message across.
Kharas agreed to produce the spots after he was approached by a writer at a South African trade show.
His goal, if he can find enough support, is to have the ads seen in 100 countries, heard in more than 40 languages and reaching 1 billion people. Except for two small grants, Kharas said, financing for the entire project has come out of his own pocket. He estimated he's spent about $100,000 so far.
A Canadian TV channel is paying to translate the Three Amigos spots into 40 languages, Kharas said, and when that work is complete there will be more than 900 individual spots -- making it the largest group of public service announcements in the world.
"We'll be able to reach 80 percent of the world's people in their own language," Kharas said. Already in South Africa, the Three Amigos speak English, Africaans, Zulu and Sotho. A challenge, however, is making sure the humor translates.
"What someone in South Africa finds funny won't be funny in Bangladesh," Kharas noted.
A team of collaborators in Canada, most newly arrived from other countries, vets each translation to make sure it's still funny.
So far, the AIDS conference in Bangkok has been dominated by discussion of how to get HIV drugs to the estimated 38 million of people around the world infected by the virus and Kharas said while that is very important, the discussion misses the point.
"This is a preventable disease," he said.
The World Health Organization has set a goal of getting HIV drugs to 3 million people by the end of 2005 -- the so-called "3 by 5" initiative -- but more than 10 million new infections are expected over that same time period.