HIV ad campaigns, whether encouraging people to get tested, treated, or learn about PrEP presumably want to encourage people to take action, but they rarely capture what actually motivates gay men.
As our community brainstorms how future efforts could better educate gay men, we must draw from past failures and successes in social marketing, and ultimately put forth more courageous and innovative messaging.
Marketing is about storytelling. It’s imperative that gay men are the authors of our own narratives, rather than just passive subjects written about but never written to, nor truly seen and reflected in the materials directed at us.
On social media, HIV-related campaigns compete for our attention by attempting to utilize the old cliché that sex sells. Lacking in artistry and innovation, emotional depth or connection, much of this contemporary messaging around queer men relies on empty provocation to get clicks.
Even when we are actively involved in crafting our own narratives, the space and platform do not always allow for the kind of nuance and rigor our stories deserve. In this sense, the space for our stories unintentionally becomes a space for self-interrogation. And things we are trying to work out personally can become part of the campaign messaging in ways that may reproduce stigma.
For gay men, the HIV messaging has often been a dance of either appealing to our sense of fear or our sense of desire. This tension between fear and sex is a psychic impulse that shapes our identity development and structures our sense of self. These primal impulses are in part how we understand ourselves in the world and map our strategies for survival. But we have to transcend this space. We are made up of more than just desire and fear. Our emotional range is unlimited, and if properly channeled, can lead to powerful and more effective media interventions.
Advertising at best, even in the social realm, is an art form. Successful ad campaigns create memories. Advertising is the platform in which we narrate our current age and may someday be the only artifact left behind to represent this particular period in time.
We are not served by any social marketing that exercises a superficial understanding of gay and bi experience or an absolutely criminal lack of creativity and imagination. We are not served by campaigns that would have us believe that as gay men we have no culture, no history, and no community. We are deserving of messages that elevate us. Rather than getting likes and shares on social media, the message must insist upon moving hearts and minds.