by Adam Hanft on December 24, 2010
The New York City Health Department isn’t full of wussy, controversy-averse, fear-of-offending bureaucrats, that’s for sure. They’re responsible for a AIDS-prevention TV spot that is gutsy, tabloidy, and has riled up some segments of the gay community.
The spot, which as been likened to a “horror movie trailer” has a simple message: “It’s never just HIV.” Concerned that condom use is waning because HIV is becoming a manageable, medicable condition – no longer a death sentence – public health authorities decided to scare men into compliance with some new information.
Here’s the text:
“When you get HIV, it’s never just HIV. You’re at a higher risk to get dozens of other diseases–even if you take medications–like osteoporosis, a disease that dissolves your bones, and dementia, a condition that causes permanent memory loss. And you’re over 28 times more likely to get anal cancer. It’s never just HIV. Stay HIV free. Always use a condom.”
It’s not exactly artful, and it does feel like it was produced by the same people who crank out the political spots that warn of the dangers of invading immigrants and job-snatching Chinese. But it’s unmissable.
Some gay groups have complained that the commerical “stigmatizes victims.” Francisco Roque of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis said that:
“It really paints this picture of gay men as these sort of disease-ridden vessels, and so the message is really sort of, ‘Stay away from gay men.’”
The Health Department stands by the message, and Larry Kramer, the gay activist, thinks it’s just great, writing;
“This ad is honest and true and scary, all of which it should be. HIV is scary, and all attempts to curtail it via lily-livered nicey-nicey ‘prevention’ tactics have failed.”
The GMHC has it all wrong. The New York City Health Department is the health department, not the Human Rights Department. It has very specific mission: to save lives. If they think that showing graphic footage of anal cancer will do that, then that’s what they should be doing. Just like their controversial anti-soft drink campaign – the one that showed blubber being poured out of a soda bottle – stigmatized fat people.
Mayor Bloomberg has taken a lot of flack for his efforts to regulate healthy living, and has been accused of being the Nanny Mayor for intervention in everything from trans fats to salt to the posting of calories in fast-food restaurants. (Though the long-term results are unclear, a Stanford study did find that people consume fewer calories when confronted with the frightening numerical impact of a whomping-big bacon cheese construction project.)
While I generally recoil at government attempts to influence the personal decisions we make, I find Bloomberg’s muscular fashioning of his role to be admirable in many respects, if only for his refusal to accept the immutability of human behavior.
For as long as I can remember, public service advertising, whether it be from the health department or any other government agency, has been bland, and toothless, sandpapered down to harmless rounded edges by fearful functionaries. That Bloomerg’s Health Department had the courage to create the HIV commercial, or an earlier spot that graphically presented the dangers of smoking, is profoundly commendable.
If other municipalities had the guts to create media messages that were actually capable of changing behavior – whether it be to get parents to read to their kids, or save for retirement, or to keep credit card debt down to a reasonable level – we’d piss off a lot of people, and be a better society for it.