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Why I think it’s time for a shock campaign on HIV

Defending the new HIV testing advert which features a man lifting gym weights in an electric chair
Ryan Arya has designed a shock campaign to tackle undiagnosed HIV.

Featuring a man in an electric chair in an HIV ad campaign was always going to spark a reaction.

So it’s no surprise that the advert I created in response to a competition for a new way to highlight undiagnosed HIV infection is already prompting debate.

The idea behind the campaign was to present the unknown in a visual sense: I did this by presenting a man in the gym training whilst strapped to an electric chair.

The electric chair works as the metaphor for the undiagnosed HIV infection and the death sentence that it ultimately can be (if left untreated). I wanted the image to hit hard and to shock as an initial reaction. But equally important was to educate that early diagnosis can now lead to a normal life expectancy – an important fact which many still might not be aware of.

The concept was inspired by phrases such as ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and ‘ignorance is not bliss’. I also looked at past HIV and AIDS awareness campaigns and thought about why they did or didn’t work.

I always knew I wanted to create something with a darker undertone, but I realized it was a risky move as I felt it was probably too far removed from what the gay community was familiar with. So when it was announced that I’d won the competition I was really appreciative as it meant others believed in my idea too.

Since I was announced as the winner, I’ve heard a mixture of good and bad reviews about the campaign.

The bad reviews mainly come from people claiming that using scare tactics isn’t the right approach. My argument is that with one in seven gay men on on London’s LGBT scene, now is not the time to use tamer antics.

I have also directly asked a lot of the people who were quick to criticize how they would’ve approached the subject. To this I usually get no answer or that I should have conveyed that being HIV positive isn’t a ‘big deal’ anymore. I don’t agree. Just because the virus is now controllable, the emphasis on prevention shouldn’t be sidetracked.

I did a lot of research before hand into studies that suggest shock advertising is much more effective in gaining people’s attention and is much more likely to influence behavior.

From personal experience the campaigns I’ve previously seen and been influenced by are ones that shocked, provoked or caused me to question their meaning. I think an effective campaign will ultimately do one of those three.

I’ve seen posters in the past in clubs and bars of buff men holding up condoms with captions like ‘Stay safe’, and I always questioned their relevance. Maybe those adverts work for some people, but for me they didn’t, which is why I think a mixture of advertising techniques should always be used.

I think it’s undeniable that promiscuity in the gay community has escalated in recent years. I’m inclined to believe this is mainly driven by dating websites and phone applications which a high percentage of men use to arrange hook-ups. I’m not here to judge anyone’s behavior; I just think it goes without saying that if promiscuity increases then so should sexual health awareness.

The campaign will run on Gay Star News from Monday (1 October). See it here:

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