“Many Shades of Gay” HIV Prevention Campaign Shows Future of Public Health

In early June the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF) launched “Many Shades of Gay”, a cross-media prevention campaign with global creative agency ATTIK to encourage gay and bi-sexual men to get tested for HIV. The campaign orbits around a website – www.manyshadesofgay.org – where “visitors can create and share their own unique avatar to show off their individuality, […] learn about HIV testing, find testing centers, and set reminders to be tested again every six months. The site also includes a channel for HIV-positive guys, which provides health information and resources to connect them to HIV treatment and care.”

At first look one might think “Oh, avatars and appointment reminders, what’s the big deal?” but a closer look reveals a superbly designed campaign that demonstrates how public health leaders can team up with marketing agencies to change behaviors for the better.

The first thing that jumped out at me with Many Shades of Gay was the strategic collaboration between SFAF and ATTIK. Rather than opting for stale brochures or billboards with the same old prevention messages remixed, SFAF collaborated with an agency that specializes in media and message delivery. This decision allowed both agencies to bring their core competencies to the table to create a truly innovative campaign that went viral by resonating with its target audience bridging an invaluable gap that often goes unfilled in many campaign efforts.

The integration of avatars is where the collaboration between SFAF and ATTIK on Many Shades of Gay really shines. Allowing people to create “a tiny, digital version of themselves” helps users envision themselves going to get tested and supports the cultural normalization of HIV testing. One of the biggest barriers to routine HIV testing is just finding the time (and courage) to make an appointment and actually go through the clinic doors. The avatars can be helpful in showing that all types of guys from conservative to campy get tested.

Leveraging technology to support the core messaging of the campaign really paid off. So many great prevention messages are buried when they come under harsh criticism for not depicting the right race, body type, age, etc. Many Shades of Gay sidesteps this common trap through ATTIK’s mobile and tablet optimized HTML5 website with “the world’s most robust avatar generator, offering nonillions of unique configurations”. Avatars are nothing new to our wired world but its a simple tech solution to tap into and “promote the diversity of this community while encouraging them to get tested regularly”.

Prevention campaigns that merge online and offline marketing to inspire behavior changes are way more successful than those that rely on one venue or the other. Messaging really has to permeate spaces where people exist and experience the behaviors that need to be changed, so the promotion of Many Shades of Gay online through web banners as well as offline through billboards and colorful drink coasters at local bars demonstrates one way that prevention campaigns can be presented in ways that integrate them more into the fabric of people’s everyday lives.

Many Shades of Gay avatars will blanket San Francisco, the Internet, and social media. Once users create their avatars, they are invited to keep the campaign going by sharing it through social media channels and inviting friends to join the effort.

Drag “Mags” Many Shades of Gay Avatar

The Pulse + Signal team wouldn’t be terribly bummed if a gender and sexuality inclusive version of Many Shades of Gay popped up but for now we can only hope this campaign is successful in reducing HIV transmission in the intended community. If it does, it will ignite a wildfire of cross-media prevention campaigns from leading nonprofits and ad agencies around the country willing to do pro bono work to stomp out the health issues that affect the most at-risk communities.

Read more about Many Shades of Gay in the press release here.

Other Pulse + Signal thoughts on HIV/AIDS:

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