A new public service advertisement released by the New York City Health and Mental Hygiene Department in early December has created significant controversy in the gay activist community. The PSA emphasizes the dangers of HIV/AIDS, flashing statistics about increased risk of osteoporosis, a “disease that dissolves your bones,” and graphic photos of anal cancer. Proponents say that the ad shows the dangers of HIV in an honest way, while critics have called the ad “sensationalistic” and “stigmatizing,” and have demanded that the city pull the ad from circulation.
City health officials, who have released similar PSAs about smoking, obesity and childhood poisoning, say that they’re trying to reach young people, and that these tactics are generally effective.
“One of the points they kept making is you need to hit hard and do something to counteract the pharmaceutical ads that say having H.I.V. is a walk in the park,” Dr. Monica Sweeney, assistant commissioner of the city’s bureau of H.I.V. prevention and control, was quoted as saying.
Others disagreed. “We know from our longstanding H.I.V. prevention work that portraying gay and bisexual men as dispensing diseases is counterproductive,” explained Marjorie Hill, chief executive of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “Studies have shown that scare tactics are not effective.”
The H.I.V. Health and Human Planning Services Planning Council of New York wrote a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, saying that “acknowledging [gay men's] resilience in the face of this epidemic, will be far more successful than perpetuating outdated images of sickness, dying and death.”
Although this is obviously a controversial issue, I’m more convinced by the ad’s critics, simply because the ad does seem extremely stigmatizing. HIV is certainly a terrifying disease, and people should be aware of the potential consequences of having unprotected sex, but emphasizing terrible danger just makes people with HIV seem terrifying, rather than the disease itself.
I’m glad that the city of New York is trying to deal with the HIV crisis with openness and honesty, but this seems like the wrong way to go about it.
Photo from Youtube.