"Don't Be a Bitch" HIV Ads Targeting Young Black Women & Men Defended by SF DPH
The editor of the BAR, Ms. Cynthia Laird, has graciously granted me written permission to reprint this old story on my blog.
I want to share it with people because as the national debate continues over that idiot Imus and his racist, sexist comments against the brave young women of Rutgers' woman basketball team, I hope the discussion soon expands to a frank talk about government-funded disrespectful language and imagery used in some HIV prevention social marketing campaigns.
Click here to view one of the awful pages from the offensive campaign.
'Homoboy' serves as latest crusader in fight against HIV
by Matthew S. Bajko
Bay Area Reporter
January 27, 2005
Shirtless, the young black man is decked out in baggy jeans and a beanie cap, grabbing his crotch. Around his neck hangs his bling; a plastic necklace fashioned to resemble diamonds that spells out his moniker “homoboy.” His message: don't be a bitch - use a condom.
Just who or what is a homoboy? He is the latest effort by San Francisco health officials to convince, in this case young gay men of color, to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases by wearing a rubber during sex. A bitch - a word bandied about within hip-hop culture that can mean anything from a prostitute to a prisoner's submissive sexual partner - in this case refers to a man who engages in unsafe sex.
"If you are weak, submissive then you are the bitch. You do whatever you are told to do kind of thing. We are saying don't put yourself in that position, be strong and take care of yourself, take responsibility," said Les Pappas, whose agency Better World Advertising created and designed the campaign for the Department of Public Health. "If you have your shit together then you are going to do the right thing. You are going to be smart about sex and use a condom. If you are a mess and don't care then you are going to be a bitch and not stand up for yourself and demand a condom be used."
The provocative new campaign began surreptitiously this month with ads in local gay papers showing only a young man's chest and the homoboy necklace. The full campaign hit the streets this week, with the pasting of posters around the city's gay neighborhoods, the launch of the homoboy.org Web site, and Castro stores handing out free homoboy bling.
"It's sort of a real street oriented thing and also word of mouth," Pappas said of the campaign's guerrilla marketing tactics.
While black men have been featured in past HIV prevention campaigns funded by the city, the new initiative is the first to be specifically targeted to young men of color and appropriate their cultural references into the campaigns' message and imagery. It also prominently features a young transsexual woman in the ad and on the Web site.
To those who do HIV prevention work within the black community, the ad and its appropriation of hip-hop and gangsta rap imagery, such as using a rottweiler, flat screen television, and pimped out car as icons on the Web site, is startling at first. But while they see the campaign's tone and over the top portrayal of hip-hop culture leaning toward stereotyping, they nonetheless welcome the city's first foray into targeting young black men with HIV messages.
"I am not feeling this Web site. It just seems kind of, my first initial impression is it seems culturally exploitative toward black folk. It is too bling-bling, too much," said Rickey Williams, coordinator of the Our Love Program, the black men's program at the Stop AIDS Project. "It in some level reinforces some stereotypes."
But Williams, 26, said the site's directing guys to places to go for HIV and STD testing and treatment, as well as where to get free condoms is valuable. In looking at the site, he said he also liked its multicultural aspect - the campaign features both a Latino and Asian guy as well as a black guy and transsexual woman.
"I like the catch phrase 'don't be a bitch use a condom.' It is talking about taking self-responsibility for your body," he said. "On some level people dealing with HIV and STDs might take offense to that but I think it in fact is a positive message of taking care of your body."
Francis Broome, 30, the program manager for the Black Coalition on AIDS' Many Men, Many Voices, a group for gay black men age 21 and over, said after thinking about the campaign his reaction is "a positive one."
"It's about time DPH is opening up their prevention messages to a diverse group of people. Historically they have been very gay, white men focused. This ad will broaden the scope of people that the prevention draws in," said Broome.
However, he cautioned that not everyone would embrace the ad, particularly those men of color who do not attach the word gay to their sexual identity.
"It kind of is startling in the sense it is very stereotyping of the hip-hop culture in the black community. I don't think everyone will associate with it. It will bring some people in but turn some people off," he said. "The title 'homoboy' particularly with black men and Latino men, not a lot of people identify with this terminology. We use different terminology. We don't use gay, we use same-gender loving. Our social marketing material is very different now."
As with its “Crystal Mess” campaign last fall, which depicted men strung out on speed and also provoked strong reactions, the health department's latest campaign is also meant to be attention getting.
"This campaign is designed to get people talking," said Steven Tierney, the health department's director of HIV prevention. "When we spend money on social marketing now it has to be a little more targeted and we have turned up the volume a little bit. People have complained that health messages have gotten a little boring and they don't pay attention to them."
Nonetheless, Tierney said at first he questioned the campaign's use of the word “bitch” and requested the ad agency retest it with focus groups to ensure the targeted group would embrace the message.
"It is not language I would have chosen, but it was field tested. I am a 53-year old white guy. It did not make sense to me, but it wasn't supposed to," said Tierney. "It's designed for African American youth and it was designed through a series of focus groups with youth. The young people we are trying to speak to we want to get them to think about risk behavior. They are young folks who don't listen to traditional health messages."
With black men disproportionately impacted by HIV within San Francisco compared to white men, Tierney said it is important that the city find ways to connect with this population group.
"This is a group that hasn't been effectively brought into services. This is an attempt to speak to them in the language they shared with us in focus groups," he said. "What we know about prevention messages is it is best if they are spoken in the vernacular of the community we are trying to reach."
The campaign cost $49,000 to develop and $49,000 to implement.
So far, those young people Tierney has heard from like the campaign. Marcus Mahto, who helped work on the campaign as an intern with the ad agency, said his circle of friends has so far embraced the ad and its use of hip-hop symbols.
"I am going to be wearing the necklace and I am going to get some of the necklaces for some of my friends. I already had a couple friends ask where they can get it," said Mahto, who is 25 and HIV-positive. "I think it is really great compared to other campaigns. People are totally nude in some campaigns I have seen at the bar but you don't have to be that vivid."
As for the imagery and ethos of the homoboy, Mahto said the persona the ad projects can be a good role model for young men to emulate.
"If they want to be that model or that person it shows them they can do that without getting an STD, and if they get an STD where to go to get checked," he said.
With younger generations of gay men utilizing the Internet as a part of their social lives, the campaign also includes homoboy screen savers and buddy icons people can download from the Web site.
"It will give you something to remind you in your face on your computer for you to get tested every couple of months," said Mahto. "Or with the buddy icon, it might prompt people to ask their partner if they have an STD or might intrigue them to get tested before they have sex. That is really needed in this community."