Should AIDS Walk ads be sexy?

The nearly naked men in a new Minnesota AIDS Project ad campaign fuel debate about using sex to sell prevention of sexually transmitted disease.

Photos by Ingrid Werthmann; Ad produced by Minnesota AIDS Project. Campaign for Minnesota AIDS Walk.

Sex sells. But is it appropriate when what you're promoting is prevention of the world's deadliest sex-related disease?

The Minnesota AIDS Project's use of virile, nearly naked young men and suggestive language in its new AIDS Walk 2010 campaign has sparked some lively blog discussion. MAP says the ads target young gay men -- among whom HIV is increasing -- and that this kind of imagery gets their attention. Critics counter that the ads aren't instructive and reinforce gay stereotypes.

In an opinion piece posted on Vita.mn (a Star Tribune publication) and Facebook, then picked up by the national gay website queerty.com, Vita.mn events manager Christian-Philippe Quilici wrote that sex "tends to tweak the message; it blurs it at best and cheapens it at worst. How many leukemia campaigns have you seen recently that feature hot shirtless guys?" He commends MAP for "bumping up its game" with the flashy campaign, but wonders if the message "risks trivializing one of the defining epidemics of our generation."

The print ads will debut on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, and run in Twin Cities gay publications, including Lavender. They feature well-built, oiled-up young men wearing nothing but long orange banners splashed across their midsections, reading "How Much Will You Raise?" and smaller copy with capitalized emphasis on a few double-entendre words (including "harder" and "deeper"). But a couple of low-budget, chatty "Behind the Scenes" YouTube videos featuring models in tighty whities talking about their commitment to MAP are likely to get more play.

For many years now, attractive young celebrities have been stripping down in the name of a cause, the most famous being PETA's "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign featuring celebrities in the buff. But in some views, things get more complicated when hot flesh is used in the name of cool-headed sexual decision-making.

Some online reaction defended the ads. Comments on Queerty included: "Is it wrong that young attractive gay guys promote the notion that young attractive gay men are concerned about HIV/AIDS too?" and "Should they show a casket and say 'please donate'?" But other responders took issue.

Carl Atiya Swanson, a freelance writer and artist who runs the local website cakein15.com, finds it troubling that the impassioned activism and imagery of the 1980s has given way to "the glossy blasé of Hanes ads. The words -- 'do more than the bare minimum,' go 'harder,' -- are cheap and tawdry," he said. "I'm not opposed to MAP using them, but I think they can do better than selling it like some sort of late-night chat room. They chose the medium over the message."

Spike, a marketing volunteer for an AIDS task force, wrote: "It's a fine line that you have to walk when promoting the cause. The young generation won't pay attention to anything that's not provocative, but you don't want to promote promiscuity, since that's so often the reason that any sexually transmitted disease is, well, transmitted."

'Just seems wrong'

Ryan Rollinson of Minneapolis, who is HIV-positive and works in foster care for adults with AIDS, compared the ads with a San Francisco campaign themed "HIV: not fabulous," which pictured people in the worst stages of AIDS. "That stereotype is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the MAP ads, which use the attractive young male as the standard representation for the whole community," he said. "Marketing sex for prevention of what is primarily a sexually transmitted disease just seems wrong to me."

There may be disagreement on how to reach this young male audience, but there's compelling evidence that it needs to be reached: Since 2001, there has been a steady increase in new cases among Minnesota's gay and bisexual men under age 24. In 2008, people ages 29 and under represented 35 percent of new infections among all populations (male/female/gay/straight). Numbers are trending higher this year, too.

"In 2009, we're on track to see more cases than we have since the mid-1990s, many of which are occurring in young men," said LorraineTeel, executive director of MAP for 19 years. "We're starting the third post-Rock Hudson generation now, and AIDS doesn't set off the same alarms as it did in the 1980s. This disease has faded into the background like others before it, and this is one way to bring it forward again. If we can use sex to sell toothpaste and cars, why not use it to talk about having safer sex?"

Teel said that the multifaceted 2010 campaign features mostly conventional imagery, like smiling (and clothed) people of all ages, genders and ethnicities walking in a park: "Anti-smoking campaigns use everything from the cold, hard facts, to imagery of death and dying, to appealing to vanity. You have to get people's attention where they're at."

David Folkens, MAP's communications director, knew there would be some in the GLBT community who might not like this approach, "but something isn't clicking with the traditional messages, and there's a part of the key under-30 crowd audience that will respond to this."

Ad experts weigh in

It's no secret that when selling products in general, sex works better on male audiences than females. But when you get into health areas, said Joe Redden, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, the message has to persuade people that it could happen to them, and if so, that the consequences could be severe: "We don't equate a severe consequence with joking language," he said. "That's a risk. The ads might instill a level of either arousal or revolt that will keep people from thinking further about it. On the positive side, the target audience will probably find it entertaining, which increases its chances of going viral."

Tom Reichert, an advertising professor for the University of Georgia in Athens, has researched the effectiveness of sexually explicit images in HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns.

"Ads that use sex are more engaging, but no one's really sure if they're more effective," he said. "Ads like this aren't designed to educate people, just get them closer to an issue so they'll be more open to it."

The campaign already has a head start on its goal -- getting people talking.

"If the aim was to generate buzz and discussion, then clearly it's worked," Rollinson said. "It'll be a few months before we know if it's done its primary goal --raising money for the AIDS Walk."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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