EDMONTON – “We don’t know who is spreading HIV in Edmonton. And neither do they.” This is the slogan of an edgy new campaign aimed at getting Edmontonians talking about the rising rates of HIV.
HIVTonight.com, a website launched by HIV Edmonton, warns readers of explicit imagery before they commit to opening the site. Pictures of erect penises are used to portray the increasing rates of HIV in the city, and provocative slogans are used to grab people’s attention and get them talking about the virus.
“It is a little explicit… It’s meant to be somewhat exciting and shocking,” Brook Biggin, HIV Edmonton’s community educator, said.
“It pulls people in. It’s light, it’s fun, it’s edgy. There are penises everywhere and so it gets people in.”
The campaign specifically targets gay and bisexual men and encourages them to discuss their HIV status before engaging in sexual activity with anyone. HIV Edmonton said there’s been a lack of really effective HIV awareness campaigns focused on this population.
“To this day, men who have sex with men are the most disproportionately impacted population in terms of HIV across Canada,” Biggin said. “So many awareness campaigns that have been focused upon men who have sex with men have been negative in tone or almost shaming. We want to celebrate gay sexuality.”
The site was designed by Calder Bateman, the company behind the controversial Plenty of Syph campaign, which in 2011 put a spotlight on Alberta’s rising syphilis rates.
The HIV Tonight campaign is mainly web-based, with the hope people will share it on social media.
“We needed something that was going to be provocative. We needed something that was going to provoke a conversation and something that’s a little unexpected,” Laura Keegan with HIV Edmonton said.
While the campaign has a jovial exterior, the message behind it is serious. About half of the new HIV infections in Canada are among men who have sex with men, according to HIV Edmonton. Less than two-thirds of gay men in Edmonton have been tested for sexually transmitted infections or HIV in the last 12 months.
While there is no cure for HIV, it is a manageable disease.
“With HIV, we know exactly how it’s transmitted, we know exactly how to prevent it,” Keegan said. “And yet, the social stigma, the lack of communicating about it, the people’s fear about it really stops people from getting to the point where we can see a decrease (in cases).”
“We really have to push the envelope and get people talking about HIV again, but in a new way. It’s 2016.”
The campaign definitely has people talking. While most of the reaction has been positive, Keegan said there have been some negative comments made about their approach to education. But she encourages the chatter, whether it’s positive or negative.
“One of the best things that happened was even a negative response that happened on Facebook engaged in a conversation, and that’s what this campaign is about.”
“We need to talk about HIV as a community and we need to talk about it now,” Biggin added.