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Government wastes £4.6m on mobile telly nonsense

Web2.0-twattery: Condom ads watched by almost no one

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A £5m gov-backed mobile-video series designed to promote condom use among da yoof has met with a limp reception - in the two months since its launch the internet-based campaign has only managed 554 MySpace friends and 15 fans on Facebook.

The project, entitled Thmbnls and with the strap line "Want Respect? Use a condom", is being paid for by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and run by the decidedly new-age 20:20 London (warning - flash heavy site) who are filming 22 one-minute episodes that can be downloaded, for free, onto a mobile phone. Viewers are also encouraged to respond to voicemails and text messages received from characters in the series (one of each, so far), generally asking advice on whether to go "all the way" and where they can get a condom.

No doubt you've been avidly following the adventures of Billy, jakki, mundy, b%ks, lupe & gripper, after all; 4.6 million quid of your money is being spent to make the video series about the six friends and the importance they attach to condom use, and if you aren't watching it then one has to wonder who is.

After a month of haranguing the department we were finally told that PR Agency Blue Rubicon had been assigned to the project, and our questions should be directed to them. After a week of daily calls we finally got the chance to present our questions about how many viewers were downloading Thmbnls. We were told that they would look into it, but that it was unlikely such figures would be available.

After all, it's very hard to get gross download figures out of a web server - if only they kept records of some sort.

So we spoke to some youth workers, involved with just the kind of people Thmbnls is aimed at. Unfortunately none of them had heard of the series - most thought it was a nice idea, though they expressed concern about the penetration of video-capable phones. Perhaps the youth they work with aren't middle-class enough.

So to the Web 2.0 space, where Thmbnls should be right at home. Sure enough the programme has a MySpace page, and a Facebook fan group, though the former has only 554 friends, and the latter only 15 members, there is no Bebo presence at all.

There is a YouTube channel, but that has only three subscribers, and while the trailer has been watched thousands of times the episodes (about half of which are available) have only been viewed a few times each. Even the exclusive YouTube content, unavailable elsewhere, has only been seen a few thousand times.

Thmbnls has been mentioned on Twitter, but only 14 times and half of those are notifications about the launch. The blogosphere, meanwhile, seems almost unaware that the series exists.

If these figures are in any way indicative of the popularity of Thmbnls then we could send a couple of grand to every viewer and still save money, come to that - for that money we could just buy every yoof (aged 15-19) in the UK a pack of three, in the hope they would use them.

Blue Rubicon tells us that the feedback received has been "very positive" and that "many young people are engaging with the interactive elements", though when we asked for specifics we were told the company is "not hopeful that we'll have such specific information readily available". Admittedly we're less than halfway though the series - episode eight was on Friday - but two months is surely enough time to take a glance at the server logs.

Government departments making teen-oriented TV is never going to go well, like the middle-aged dad strutting his stuff at the school disco - the results are, at best, easily forgotten. Teaching kids about safe sex is important, but trying to tick all the "yoof" buttons just results in new-age companies slapping each other on the back while feasting on the trough of public money to create content that will, no doubt, win awards even as it fails to educate those who need educating. ®

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