Selling AIDS: Wiretap Mag On HIV Prevention Messaging

I am Gay StayI recently met the author of this new piece on Wiretap Magazine called “Selling Ourselves: Questioning HIV Prevention Campaigns,” Kirk Grisham, through mutual friends and he’s a kindred spirit in trying to really push against all of the assumed narratives about “men who have sex with men,” and notions of “community” and “risk” in HIV prevention work. Let’s hope we get into Mailman, Kirk! LOL!

I have gotten into debates on this very blog about the meaning and efficacy of social marketing campaigns. While not perfect, and alone will not end the epidemic, I think they can be effective in breaking social norms, especially when they speak to people as having agency, value, and break certain silences and social taboos. In short: They get people talking and thinking.

Conversely, social marketing campaigns can also be stigmatizing, blaming, and as Grisham says in the article:

City agencies, private firms and the populations themselves share blame for producing these messages, which begs the question: Do we know what’s good for us? Are we simply propagating the same stigma, homophobia and racism vis-à-vis mainstream society through marketing, as seen in the Homoboy campaign?

Do these negative, racist and stigma-filled homophobic messages sell? Would positive messages work any better? Can one sell liberation?

He names some of the most problematic campaigns to come out in recent years, including “Don’t Be a Bitch. Wear A Condom.” The response he gets from Better World Advertising Exec Les Pappas (who I worked with on the WeArePartof capaign)” basically says to Grisham that the message tested well in focus groups.


Where are your politics? When I was at New York State Black Gay Network and we did the campaign with Better World, we were very clear that we did not want to do some tacky stigmatizing campaign that talked down to Black gay men. The campaign we ended up with was taken to focus groups, but our values and politics shaped it from jump. This Don’t Be a Bitch message probably would test in the current social context where Black folks are running around talking about “Man Up” and “No Homo.” Does that make it right? Is it the goal of social marketing campaigns, as they pertain to public health interventions, just to mimick what else is already out there in the world? Or to actually know that what you’re doing isn’t doing more damage than it will acutally do any good? What are the measurements of success?

Very little reporting happens that questions the more subtle forms or racism and homopbobia that happen in do-gooder public relations campaigns. Thanks for continuing a conversation, Kirk.

4 thoughts on “Selling AIDS: Wiretap Mag On HIV Prevention Messaging

  1. That’s wassup Kenyon!

    I love that we are able to continue the dialogue. This is really important, and we will only go somewhere with this if we keep talking and keep pressing ourselves as you said, to challenge what we think about sex, gender, race and how that relates to “community.”

    Something I flirted with in the article was this idea about knowing what our goals are. I think if young men and women who participate in the working groups to produce these ads, and more importantly the people who don’t but see them, thought about what our goals were for HIV/AIDS prevention, we would create campaigns and policy that combated HIV/AIDS vis-a-vis larger systemic problems, like racism, homophobia, and stigma (to name a few.)

    However, often those goals are not really thought out, and we loose sight of radical change when we focus on condoms and testing. These narratives serve to maintain systemic inequality, and being critical of them is the first step, and that sometimes means realizing that they are more prevalent in our society, and affect us in complex ways that we have not always considered.

    Keep it up, and thank you.

    I hope we get into Mailman too! 🙂

  2. this is an interesting take on an old issue – ie marginalizing messages in media and media campaigns. I’m going to be keeping my eyes a little more open to “from the community” PSAs and marketing campaigns from now on. I’m off to read “selling ourselves” and see if it is something for my queer media course next Spring

  3. Hey Kenyon – thank you for this post! I think we’ve had similar discourse re: messaging and imagery that is counterintuitive and certainly counterproductive to efforts to re-think hypermasculinity, sexism and heterosexism. Since the we are part of you campaign released i’ve seen a plethora of social marketing aimed at oversimplifying the complex and often sensitive issues related to male and black male roles in society, family, communty and relationships.
    I think the issue of social marketing and our community re: HIV demands increased dialogue among power players (agencies and groups w/ marketing budgets) to find common ground – I am sick and tired of get tested campaigns and pseudo-homoerotic get tested campaigns and str8 get tested campaigns.

    at any rate,

    all the best!

    A. R. Morgan

  4. Pingback: on the death of us | What's that you said?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s