Things that go bump in the night … HIV and Fear-based messaging


**Please be aware that some of the images and videos we link to in this post are graphic and have offended people in both the HIV and queer communities.

Do you remember the 2009 German ad campaign featuring a woman having steamy sex with a man who turns out to be Hitler?  “AIDS is a mass murderer” was the tagline.  Certainly, there’s an argument to be made that HIV kills and is killing “masses”, but the HIV positive person you might be having sex with?  No, he or she is not a mass murderer; what is this, 1987?  A similar French campaign from 2004 features a super hot naked-man-body locked in the deadly embrace of a very ugly scorpion … and a beautiful sophisticated woman receiving oral sex from a tarantula.  Ads like this rightly receive an onslaught of criticism.  HIV positive blogger Maria T. Mejia shares her reaction in this recent post on The Well Project’s blog a girl like me.  Definitely, these ads are stigmatizing, but where do we draw the line when it comes to using fear (and even shock-value) as tools for HIV education?

First, I have to rant a bit about the French spider ad (which I must say almost certainly turns some people on …)  If that spider has HIV, we all know that the chances of her passing it on to the lovely woman she’s pleasuring are basically nill, right?  Yes, there are other sexually transmitted diseases that are readily transmitted this way, including HPV and herpes, but if we compared everybody living with HPV or herpes to a deadly tarantula, we’d be in trouble then, wouldn’t we?  Given that an estimated 50% of sexually active adults are thought to be infected with at least one strain of HPV

Okay, back to the question at hand.  Another more recent HIV prevention campaign has ruffled some feathers, but this one I’m less convinced is “all bad”.  It’s the New York Health Department’s It’s Never Just HIV campaign, aimed at young men who have sex with men.  It includes high-drama narration, some very cute young men, a reminder that osteoporosis and dementia are more common in people living with HIV, and a brief snapshot of some pretty scary-looking anal cancer.  There are almost certainly populations for whom it’s controversial because it talks about sex at all let alone sex between men, but we’ll ignore that controversy.  Members of the HIV and queer communities are divided, precisely because it’s a fear-based approach to advertising.  Some have called it stigmatizing; others think it’s exactly what young people need.

Here’s the problem …  There is obviously still a lot of misinformation about HIV out there (highlighted recently by this discouraging UK survey).  Meanwhile, we are being bombarded with messaging that says HIV is no longer deadly.  We are supposed to call it a chronic manageable illness.  We now call AIDS “advanced HIV disease” and agencies are removing the word AIDS from their names.  The problem is, for the vast majority of people living with HIV, predominantly women and children in the developing world, HIV does still lead to AIDS.  For many of the women we work with, HIV is not a chronic manageable illness.  Yes, we survive and even thrive, but it’s still a really big deal. 

Now that young gay men are not watching their friends die of AIDS (which is a good thing!) many have drawn the conclusion that it’s just not a big deal, and many are choosing not to use condoms.  This is a problem.  And speaking as a young person, it’s not a problem that’s going to be addressed by old-school hippy-dippy “let’s all love one another” messaging (sorry!).  We need it short, sweet and eye-catching … not because we have short attention spans, but because we are bombarded by messaging and we have learned to pick and choose what gets our attention.  If it doesn’t stand out, it’s lost.  So, obviously, the challenge is to strike a balance without losing the “attention grab” appeal.  Here’s a great example of creative eye-catching HIV prevention messaging that is not fear-based.

I think HIV is scary.  I do NOT however, think people living with HIV are comparable to nasty deadly bugs or mass murderers.  We need to get the facts out there in a way that works.  In other words the facts need to be absorbed, and ideally the take-away message is something clear and practical.  At least the New York ads end with a clear and useful message: “Stay HIV Free: Always Use a Condom”.