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The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is Stopping AIDS with a Giant Pink Condom

Slut-shaming and scare tactics are a thing of the past. Today's sexual health campaigns are all about reaching wide audiences with attention-grabbing imagery.
June 23, 2014, 8:09pm

Photo courtesy of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation

More than 33 million people are affected by HIV/AIDS worldwide, according to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), with 1.1 million of those cases in the US alone. One in six of these US cases have no idea they’ve got it, and AHF estimates that there are some 50,000 new HIV infections per year. AHF is doing all they can to reverse these startling numbers, even going as far as using the sort of brightly colored, irreverent billboard images seen above. These campaigns raise interesting questions about how we are consuming sex advice.

"On a subject matter that people don’t want to think or talk about, 80 percent of the battle is getting them to think about it," explained Michael Weinstein, AHF’s founder and president. "Our goal is to make condoms the equivalent of Q-tips," he added.

AHF is not the first to use provocative ad campaigns to educate about sexual health. America has a long history of experimenting with crafty ways to convey awkward messages. Tracking back as early as the 1920s, the mode of communication employed by government, military, and educational bodies featured deadly hot prostitutes, lightning bolts up the rectum, and patriotic lectures. Material circulated during WWI and WWII sheds some interesting light on how history sought to impart crucial wisdom to its people.

Photo courtesy of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation

A glance around the streets of Los Angeles reveals a far different dialogue for the sexually active folk of today. In one ad, a pooch engulfed by a hot dog bun directs onlookers to "check your weiner!"

"We hit it from a cute angle, from a hard-hitting angle," Weinstein tells me. "We use all kinds of different approaches in order to get into people’s psychology. We’re trying to reach people in an unconventional way."

Of the multiple angles employed to speak to audiences, I did wonder why they avoided the dead babies and burning flesh of cigarette-pack fame. "We just don’t think it will work," says Weinstein, telling me that they gave fear-mongering and gore a run in the 80s and 90s already. "Anything that demonizes sex is not going to work. The younger generation is just going to feel that you’re trying to push an agenda to try to control them," he explains, smartly capping the fight at any attempts to attack the biological urge to procreate—and recreate.

"The biggest problem we really face is that we’re hedonistic in our behavior and moralistic in our attitudes," Weinstein goes on, as we discuss the array of saucy imagery, sexy torsos, and foodstuffs used over the years in AHF’s campaigns. "Deadly combination. We sell everything with sex, but we don’t want to admit that people have sex. I think that people’s religious beliefs and moralistic attitudes have hampered the move towards sexual help."

Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

But sexual-health campaigns probably haven’t always had the benefit of talented and self-aware marketing teams, with a trackback to the 1980s revealing an awkward-teen phase in the HIV/AIDS awareness game. Remember that America’s first documented AIDS death was only 33 years ago, in 1981. We probably could have done without the interesting series of judgy conservative folk asking what we’ve got against condoms. The Centers for Disease Control delivered a suited-up black man reading an important book, your ninth-grade history teacher with car windows for glasses, a broody model in a turtleneck, and a Zack Morris imitation. Then the UK launched a terror campaign to liken the threat of infection to a Doomsday-centric volcano that produces its own tombstones.

Prickly sexual health ads date back much further than the inception of HIV/AIDS, however. Here’s a delightful sampling of how various governmental and other bodies tried to talk our grandparents and great grandparents out of it, thanks to the highly resourceful National Library of Medicine.

Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

The changing face of sexual-health promotional material can largely be tied to society’s evolving attitude toward sex, according to Erin Wuebker, a PhD candidate in American history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, studying the cultural relevance of these early-20th-century campaigns.

Wuebker explains that around the time of WWI, "society was undergoing a change. The younger generation was having more premarital sex, but these images show that society was not completely accepting of this yet." Another handy factor was the inception of advertising as an actual field in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. "As a result, the posters from the 1930s and 1940s are more interesting visually and are using more creative taglines.

Photo courtesy of the American Social Health Association Records/Erin Wuebker

"By the 1940s, there was greater acceptance that the young men serving in the military were going to have sex," Wuebker explains, speaking of the moment reality may have kicked in. "So they needed more straightforward advice about preventive measures."

Material released by public-health officials as well as the military in the early 1940s employed a combination of patriotism, fear-mongering, and old-timey slut-shaming in their attempts to warn WWII soldiers of the dangers of—primarily—syphilis and gonorrhea. There was a heavy and open push for prophylaxis. War could get you knifed in a blizzard, but STDs could leave you with "insanity, blindness, sterility, and heart disease." In WWI, venereal diseases are said to have benched 18,000 soldiers a day, so by the second time around authorities were ready and armed with don’t-go-there material. "The rates were much lower during WWII than WWI," confirms Wuebker, "So that was seen as a victory." The now hysterical images heavily mirror wartime propaganda and, of course, big pimpin’ gender (im)balances. Most posters warn against evil "loose women" and prostitutes, depicting women as the primarily responsible parties: disease-ridden sorcerers with eyelashes of kryptonite. Men were often portrayed as the victims.

Like AHF today, the military clearly had the idea that there’s nothing like giggle-bait to pull the inattentive eye. One 1940s cartoon campaign creates hilarity out of a silly soldier—the victim, vis-à-vis the woman—being struck by lightening, metaphoric of the sizzling pain of an STD or venereal disease. Another utters a jolly poem about an officer who scored one because he skipped out on prophylaxis: "Liberty pass, met a lass, no pro, mis’ry and woe," riddled the Navy officer as he suffered on the potty.

Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

An interesting example from the early 1920s almost takes a gentle step back from the misogynistic angle, however, and simply delivers the relevant information in a calm and educational (albeit retroactively comical) manner.

Photo courtesy of the American Social Health Association Records/Erin Wuebker

"Pick-up acquaintances often take girls autoriding, to cafes, and to theaters, with the intention of leading them into sex relations. Disease or child-birth may follow. Avoid the man who tries to take liberties with you. He is selfishly thoughtless and inconsiderate of you. Believe no one who says it is necessary to indulge one’s desire…"

With a generation only beginning to learn about the ailments we rent billboards for today, you can’t be too precise about detail. It’s interesting to note that—aside from its retro fascination value—such wordiness wouldn’t get a second take today. We’d shut it down as quickly as a YouTube video with ads. Organizations like AHF seem to be onto something with their idea of creating an array of different languages to speak their message. Whether it’s a Cesar Chavez tieback that lights your fire, an emotional appeal to your love for your mom, or a quick and cheerful gag; we’re all being summoned to attention, somehow. The taboo is being busted in accordance with our progression as a society, it seems, which must surely be progress in itself.

If one thing’s for certain, it’s not getting any easier for advertising to capture our interest. Attention spans are a funny thing, and so are cats using printers, so it’s lucky someone’s taking note of how to cram an entire slab of valuable and potentially life-saving advice into two words and one 48-foot long condom.

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