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‘Infectious’ fake dating site targets syphilis

Faux-dating site Plenty of Syph – part of an Alberta government campaign to target the province’s rising syphilis rates – tells people "to be a part of something infectious today."

But it’s an ad campaign the dating site PlentyofFish.com wants nothing to do with.

Alberta Health Services, along with Alberta Health and Wellness, recently launched a $2-million awareness campaign that includes radio and television ads, as well as an Internet site, PlentyofSyph.com.

The name is similar to PlentyofFish.com, a Vancouver-based online dating site that boasts 32 million users worldwide.

"While we believe that educating the public about sexually transmitted diseases is imperative, such blatant disrespect for a private company’s brand is shocking," Kate Bilenki, chief operating officer of Plenty of Fish, said in an email. "I am surprised that we were not contacted prior to launch of this campaign for any sort of consent.

"Whichever agency is responsible for this campaign is clearly very disrespectful. I would encourage them to come up with marketing ideas that do not damage a quality brand."

Alberta officials stand by the campaign, suggesting they haven’t received any complaints.

"Alberta Health Services has not been contacted by, nor received correspondence from, Plenty of Fish," Shannon Evans, spokeswoman for AHS, said in an emailed statement.

Alberta’s rate of sexually transmitted infections is the highest in Canada.

Syphilis has spiked in recent years, with 279 new cases in 2009 compared with 77 cases five years earlier and only two in 1999.

The Plenty of Syph site, which launched this month, features a number of racy, fake profiles, mimicking a regular dating site to educate visitors about the infection.

One fake user, beardedclam_69, a 19-year-old from Edmonton writes: "Let’s not waste time. I like doing things in person;-) msg me now and I’ll show you my 4 sexy tattoos, 2 hot piercings, and 50 small bumpy rashes on my body – and if your lucky I’ll let you graze your tongue over each and every 1!!!"

On the bottom of her profile page, a list of her syphilis symptoms is given. The location of treatment and testing centres in Alberta are also included on the website.

The campaign, however, has also angered users of the Plenty of Fish website, said the company, which shared some of the email complaints it received with the Calgary Herald.

"I have watched you build your brand for several years, and have always been impressed with your business model, and couldn’t believe that a government-affiliated program would be so bold as to attach such negative scare tactics to your hard-earned brand," wrote one patron of Plenty of Fish.

Other users had similar complaints.

Dr. Andre Corriveau, the chief medical officer for Alberta Health and Wellness, said although they’ve heard a couple of "slight" concerns, he’s only got positive reviews from his colleagues.

"People think that it’s quite innovative and unique, and it actually gets us some results," Corriveau said, noting they’ve had more people show up for testing in both Calgary and Edmonton.

"Those numbers are higher than they’ve ever seen," said Corriveau, crediting the Plenty of Syph campaign and another one titled, Don’t You Get It.

Research prior to launching the campaign told the province it needed an edgier campaign to appeal to 15- to 24-year-olds, he said, noting the young people wouldn’t respond to a traditional ad campaign.

"That’s a group that is very heavily into social media," he said. "(Researchers said) they live in a different environment and that dating sites were very, very popular, so if we wanted to catch their attention, using a mock dating site might be one way to go."

David Finch, assistant professor of marketing at Mount Royal University, said the campaign is an effective way to attract the target age group.

"It’s a very shock-centric campaign that cuts through because it is raising inherent questions with that target group," Finch said.

As well, he said parodying a company is a good way for promotion.

"It’s an in-joke with that audience, so it’s very effective," said Finch. "In that sense, you are leveraging someone else’s brand equity to drive your message. The value of parody works in that way."

The campaign website, which is the first element in a three-year action plan by the provincial government to target sexually transmitted infections, had 14,000 visitors in its first week.

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