Ads With Heat

HIV campaigns using controversial images debated at forum

HIV is a gay disease. Intrigued by that text? Offended? Does it make you resolve to practice safe sex in the future? That phrase is part of an HIV prevention campaign that recently began in Los Angeles and it is intended to wake up a complacent gay community.

“The tag line here is, ‘Own it,’” said Les Pappas, creative director at Better World Advertising, the San Francisco ad agency that created the campaign.

Better World has created a number of these social marketing efforts to address sexually transmitted diseases or HIV among gay men. Some have been popular, others controversial.

At a September 26 forum, where Pappas spoke, held at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, the effectiveness of such campaigns was discussed and debated. The forum did not reach a conclusion about whether or not this blend of public health with marketing and advertising works. What was clear is that objections to some ads are as likely to come from the gay and AIDS communities as they are to come from America’s right wing.

A three-month, $236,000 HIV-prevention campaign launched by the city of Philadelphia was deemed objectionable by activists there. The ads featured black men pictured as if they were being viewed through a riflescope and asked “Have you been hit?”

Activists said the ads were confusing and they disliked the “use of violence” in the ads.

“We felt the use of violence was not something that helped HIV prevention in our city,” said Kevin Trimell Jones, a member of Philadelphia’s Black Gay Men’s Leadership Council, which also sponsored the forum.

Before the ads were withdrawn, the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP) threatened to make the ads an issue at the recent 16th International AIDS Conference, which was held in Toronto.

“We were going to make this an example at the international AIDS conference of government-funded stigma,” said Julie Davids, CHAMP’s executive director. The AIDS group also sponsored the forum.

Some AIDS activists have objected to Better World ads that include pictures of people with AIDS with distended stomachs or wearing diapers for diarrhea that use the line “HIV (not fabulous).”

One audience member at the forum said the ads stigmatized people with AIDS. Pappas disagreed and said that the models were HIV-positive and, in a “selfless” act, had volunteered for the ads.

“Those men who are in those ads are real and they don’t think of themselves as grotesque or stigmatized,” he said. “They are really speaking with their own voices…That’s a powerful way to sort of speak the truth and show reality.”

Other ads were criticized as mere advertising. Davids noted AIDS ads by Kenneth Cole and Aldo, two apparel companies, which did not inform viewers or suggest they take any actions. Elizabeth Losh, a humanities professor at the University of California at Irvine, agreed.

“You have this sort of excessive branding,” Losh said. “It’s become all branding.”

The effectiveness of any of the ads has generally not been measured. Some data gathered by Better World showed that its “Healthy Penis” ads, an anti-syphilis effort in San Francisco, had increased knowledge about and testing for the bug among gay men there.

That data has limits.

“The kinds of surveys we do are convenience samples, they are not randomized,” Pappas said. “The reality is with a lot of these small campaigns it’s not possible to do evaluation.”

The convenience samples were made up of men interviewed on the street. The results were true only of the sample and they do not represent a wider population.

Many of these campaigns are also limited by a lack of funding. In August, the New York State Black Gay Network launched billboard, subway, and Web site ads for its “We are part of you” campaign.

“We wanted to interrupt the silence,” said Anthony R. Morgan, the network’s director of programs. “We wanted to decrease homophobia directed against black, gay men.”

The network, which also sponsored the forum, had a small amount of money. While millions probably were exposed to the subway ads, the network would like to place the ads on television.

“We want folks to be able to turn on the TV and see behavior being modeled,” Morgan said. “That’s where we want to be.”

Pappas noted that Proctor & Gamble, the consumer packaged goods company, spent billions on advertising in 2005.

“This is what it should be,” he said. “Instead of spending $4.6 billion on soap and shampoo we should be spending it on our health messages.”

The center and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) also sponsored the forum.

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