Monday, March 31, 2003


We must all agree that the existing efforts are doing ineffective work because we have witnessed since 2000, sub-Saharan levels of new HIV transmissions, a doubling of syphilis cases, rising rates of male rectal gonorrhea, and a new drug resistant staph infection afflicting some gay men.

In recent years, SF DPH and AIDS Inc have conducted studies that supposedly show ads for AIDS drugs with sexy men contribute to “AIDS complacency” and a rise in infection rates. While I’ll grant you the Big Pharma ads aren’t always truthful about AIDS drugs and their side effects, it is too one-sided, in my opinion, to only examine these ads and ignore the ads from AIDS Inc for their assorted programs.

Pick up the current issue of the BAR and you will find a quarter page ad for the UCSF AIDS Health Project for an HIV antibody testing program. A muscular, apparently naked sprinter who resembles Pierce Brosnan takes up most of the ad. What message does that image send? “Get AIDS, get muscles,” is one interpretation of the ad, which isn’t the only one to feature muscular men to attract gays to HIV and AIDS programs.

The UCSF Center for AIDS Prevention Studies has a post card out in the bars, cafes and at city run health centers that shows a very muscular, young blonde attractive man with six-pack abs and his thick biceps reaching for the sky. The only thing he’s wearing is a smile. What is the card promoting? A research effort about the side effects of the drugs.

For the last half of 2002, the Stop AIDS Project allowed its name to be used in colorful half-page ads in the BAR for Grand Marnier liquor. The comic-book men in these ads were smiling, buff and generally engaged in happy cruising activities with other men. The none-too-subtle message? AIDS prevention is about muscles and drinking. Never mind that alcohol has serious negative effects on people taking AIDS drugs, or that it can impair one’s ability to make smart choices about safer sex. Those points are missing from the ad.

When the Chronicle first wrote about the DPH/AIDS Inc studies on sexy Big Pharma ads, the paper used a photo of a bus shelter ad that supposedly was designed to address the complacency brought on by glamorous AIDS drug advertisements. To their embarrassment, the Chronicle made a huge mistake, which they had to correct the next day. The bus shelter ad, with did have sexy, naked men engaged in sex on display, was not placed by Big Pharma, but was instead from the HIV prevention program of the SF AIDS Foundation. Oops. The ad was part of the foundation’s offensive “How do you know what you know?” campaign that sowed distrust in gay men and their sex partners.

One of the sexiest ads for HIV prevention programs that I’ve seen in the past year was a full page in the Chronicle last fall from Macy’s for their Passport Fashion Show, an annual fundraiser for local AIDS programs. The Macy’s ad displayed an attractive swimmer, with a shaved head and a bulge in his Speedos, hardly the realistic image of what many with HIV look like.

AIDS Inc wants to say that only sexy drug ads fuel complacency and rising rates of infections, while denying they themselves will also employee images of muscular males to sell a product, in this case, HIV and STD prevention.

We should also examine the inconsistency of some campaigns, especially those targeting syphilis prevention. In August 1999, the SF DPH ran full page ads in the BAR saying syphilis is a time-bomb we can defuse. The ads featured an enormous walking, ticking time-bomb with sticks of TNT attached. Scary, huh? You bet.

Now, the syphilis campaigns are about a goofy talking penis in comic strips appearing in newspapers and on bus shelters. The syphilis campaigns seem to veer from alarming scare tactics and imagery, to funny cartoon penis characters. No wonder some gays may be confused about how serious to take the threat of syphilis.

Part of me thinks that the over-saturation of social marketing campaigns targeting gay men with prevention messages are having the opposite effect, and that reverse psychology has kicked in. Plus, I believe many gay men have simply tuned out all the competing ads and messages, which are everywhere in gay sex clubs, bars, cafes, on sex web sites. Why don’t the folks at AIDS Inc realize there is only such much information about the horrors of HIV and STD infections that the average gay male can absorb and do something about?

The sexy, unrealistic ads from Big Pharma and AIDS Inc aren’t the only problem with HIV prevention. Another problem is the programs for HIV positives that are fun, fun, fun. Got AIDS? Come to a forum about hot, erotic writing. Or join the HIV bowling league. Not your idea of fun? How about a boat cruise on the Bay? Perhaps you’d enjoy a trip to the zoo, or a dance event called the “Geezer’s Ball,” or maybe a course in flirting is more your cup of tea. I believe these programs send a strong message that if you contract HIV, your social life will be whirlwind of pleasurable social events with lots of smiling hunks having a good time.

Let’s also keep in mind that most of the AIDS Inc ads and programs are funded with public dollars, yet there is minimal public scrutiny of such things and why they are failing to bring down or stabilize HIV and STD rates.

I don’t think we will ever effective HIV and STD prevention campaigns again until AIDS Inc and DPH acknowledge their abysmal messages used today, and they move away from just pointing the finger of badness only at Big Pharma ads and not their own ads and programs. If AIDS Inc won’t admit their programs and ads are failing, how can we ever improve them?

I am hopeful that Supervisor Bevan Dufty’s upcoming forums on HIV prevention will be the first steps in assessing what is wrong with prevention and how to make it better.

How can we improve HIV and STD prevention, without scare-mongering and fear, coupled with negative attitudes about sex in general, and homo-sex in particular?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can appreciate your passion and can certainly understand your concern about complacency on this issue. I agree that the strategy for HIV prevention is not working and it needs to be reassessed. However, I must draw the line as someone who is HIV+, and I think I can speak for many of us, I wasn't looking for a "social life that would be a whirlwind of pleasurable social events with lots of smiling hunks having a good time" as you suggest. For many of us, we did not go looking for this, but it was an unfortunate event that we were infected. I prefer to maintain a positive attitude about my situation and my future, it's what gets me through the rough times. I'd prefer not to be exposed to the dark, negative side of HIV every single day; God knows, I live it every single day. I applaud you and please use your energy and passion to fight the situation, but please don't attack people living with HIV/ me, our options in life have been tremendously diminished.