There has been much ado this week surrounding the graphic commercial on the dangers of HIV recently released by New York City’s Health and Mental Hygiene Department. The ad, called “It’s Never Just HIV,” features a harsh depiction of illnesses that are often associated with the disease, such as osteoporosis, dementia, and a very graphic graphic image of anal cancer.
While several gay activists have complained, calling the ads “stigmatizing and sensationalistic,” others, most notably Act Up founder Larry Kramer, have defended the ads as a true portrayal of the disease. “This ad is honest and true and scary, all of which it should be,” says Kramer. “HIV is scary, and all attempts to curtail it via lily-livered nicey-nicey ‘prevention’ tactics have failed.”
The controversy surrounding New York City’s HIV prevention effort is similar to the uproar the Illinois Department of Public Health faced when it released a divisive ad campaign encouraging people to get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. As reported on OGM, that campaign, titled “He’s the One,” was pulled amid allegations that it demonized HIV positive men and might discourage those living with the disease to divulge their status.
The commercial may make some viewers uncomfortable, but I must come to the defense of the campaign. New York City officials followed all the proper ad testing procedures to identify a creative concept that would resonate the most with its audience, including focus groups with the campaign’s target demographic— primarily Latino and black men between ages 18 and 30.
When developing an ad campaign, the marketer’s job is to identify the ad concept that is most effective at driving viewers to a desired action. Some may call this commercial “scare tactic” advertising, but at the end of the day proper ad testing won out. If it takes “scare tactics” to compel people to think seriously about the consequences of HIV, so be it.