MTV and HIV both turn 20 this year. But that’s not the reason people with AIDS on the brain are doing double-takes at the cable channel’s recent ad campaigns. Catchy slogans such as, “Can I get MTV from kissing?” with their sly (or not) rip-offs of HIV awareness ads have sparked a debate about whether MTV boosted or busted the prevention cause.

“Throughout its history, MTV has been blamed for every public problem from short attention spans to the decline of Western Civilization,” says Christina Norman, a network senior-vice-president. For the latest branding, she says, “we wanted to poke fun at ourselves” with a “public health” message. “According to Norman, the ads--by Boston based Modernista!--are meant as parodies of ”this cure-all culture."

So buses and transit shelters in New York City, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston are plastered with messages that, but for that three-letter acronym, read--intentions are not--notably like AIDS awareness slogans. “Talk to your partner about MTV,” for example, or “Many people live with MTV still lead happy and productive lives.”

MTV--which industry sources estimate spent several million dollars on the campaign, pleads innocent to playing the AIDS card. “It’s about satirizing preventative messages in general commercials for Claritin, Paxil, ”four out of five dentists choose Crest," says Norman, who allows that POZ wasn’t the first to cry subliminal."

Pop-culture critic Michael Musto was unpersuaded by the party line. “The ads are definitely parodying STD messages,” he says. “They trivialize AIDS messages by co-opting them to a light, bouncy effect.”

Judd Winick, an AIDS advocate who lived with PWA Pedro Zamora on MTV’s The Real World, agrees, objected MTV’s been-there, mocked-that, attitude. “I think there is a problem with desensitizing AIDS in general,” he said.

But finally, it may not matter what was intended, if passerby, especially the channel’s teen-saturated audience, connect with the high-impact ads with high-risk sex, says Donna Futterman, MD, who heads Montefiore Adolescent AIDS Program in New York City.  “Maybe AIDS awareness messages are so ubiquitous that they can be spoofed, ” Futterman says. “MTV might be doing us a favor by promoting our messages.”

And maybe the kids are all right with a little satire. “MTV is reflecting--and leading--one of the essences of youth culture, ” Futterman says. “Nothing is sacred, and everything can be spoofed.”