On any given day in Atlanta, particularly in economically distressed areas, HIV-related billboards are on full display. I can’t help but wonder if the intention behind their messages is to inspire a sense of personal resilience.
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 black gay and bi men. After seeing the billboards once or twice, the messages end up fading into the background of our lives.
As our community brainstorms how future efforts could better educate black gay and bi men about PrEP, the HIV prevention strategy that makes it virtually impossible to contract the virus, 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 black 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 black 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 black gay men in particular, 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, and is captured perfectly in Essex Hemphill’s poem “Now We Think.” 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 binary. 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 epoch in time.
While crafting PrEP messaging we must remain centered on our needs for belonging and freedom. Black gay men need to know there is a community standing behind them, rooting for them, even if it does not always feel like it. PrEP messaging must convey that while it is about sexual health, it’s also about connections, relationships, and power.
PrEP the Love: PrEP messaging for black gay and bi men must move away from focusing on sex or death. GMHC’s 2008 ‘I Love my Boo’ campaign (above) did it right.
My favorite campaign of all time is GMHC’s 2008 “I Love My Boo” effort to dig at something deeper and more profound about our experiences. Our humanity wasn’t sacrificed in the service of being provocative for the sake of being provocative. Nor did the campaign rely on celebrity spokespersons or nightmarish scenarios. We need PrEP campaigns that do the same.
We are not served by any social marketing that exercises a superficial understanding of black 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 black 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, PrEP messaging must insist upon moving hearts and minds.
Contributing editor CHARLES STEPHENS is an Atlanta-based writer and activist. He is also the executive director of the Counter Narrative Project. (@CharlesDotSteph)