The bus-shelter installations are difficult to miss -- colorful, eye-catching advertisements headlined Love Your Life, Keep It 100 that feature young Black male models and scannable "quick response" (QR) codes that instantly direct smartphone users to an HIV-prevention website. Posters and palm cards bearing the same catchy images and phrase carry the message into barbershops, hair salons, schools and elsewhere throughout New York City's Harlem and South Bronx neighborhoods.
"Keep It 100" is urban vernacular meaning "keep it real" or "be honest." And the campaign that has adopted this slang as its slogan has become one of the first marketing campaigns to use QR codes as an interactive tool to prevent HIV/AIDS.
"It's also one of the first campaigns to target young Black heterosexual men around HIV prevention," says Ingrid Floyd, executive director of Iris House, the Harlem-based HIV/AIDS service organization that created the campaign. Black men "are often ignored or left out of the equation in HIV prevention and education," says Larry Bryant, the director of national organizing at New York City based Housing Works.
High HIV Rates in Harlem
The HIV/AIDS epidemic has taken a huge toll within New York's Black and Latino communities. One in every 38 residents in Central and East Harlem is HIV positive, compared with more than 1 out of 100 citywide.
"East and Central Harlem and the South Bronx have the second- and third-highest HIV rates in New York City," says Floyd. "The highest rates are in Chelsea, which has a large population of gay men. But among African Americans? The highest rates are here."
Black women and Latinas account for more than 90 percent of all new HIV infections among women in New York City. And "more than 90 percent of their cases were transmitted through heterosexual contact," says Floyd, whose agency was the first in the nation to address the needs of women living with HIV/AIDS. "But we didn't find any programs that were targeting heterosexual men. There is always the responsibility on women to negotiate condom use. We wanted to change that."
Until now, "There hasn't been much progress in reaching young straight Black men," Bryant says. "A disconnect remains between how we use technology and how to reach those young men."
To help close this disconnection, Iris House created Keep It 100 to target 18- to 24-year-old straight men as well as MSM. "The goal was to increase condom use, HIV testing and hopefully visits to Iris House and one of our prevention programs," Floyd says. The campaign is funded by a one-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
And the eye-catching design? "We held focus groups and worked with Duane Cramer to create something young, fresh and new," Floyd says.
In focus groups, youths often said that they were "attracted by things they could understand and something that would appeal to them and not older people," says Cramer, the acclaimed San Francisco-based Black photographer and social-marketing executive responsible for the imagery in the Greater Than AIDS and Testing Makes Us Stronger campaigns. "The Keep It 100 slogan resonated with them. It made sense in terms of using a condom 100 percent of the time," he adds.
The QR codes send people who scan them to a website where they can learn where to find free-condom locations and obtain HIV testing. "It's easier than typing KEEPit100NYC.org. Young people are using this technology," Cramer says.
Black and Latino youths are heavy smartphone users -- 44 percent (pdf) have them, compared with 30 percent of Whites.
"Sometimes people underestimate Black and Brown youth," adds Cramer. "They're on the cutting edge of everything, whether it's technology, music or fashion."
So far, federal officials are very pleased with the campaign's outcome. Says Gretchen Stiers, Ph.D., HIV/AIDS-policy lead at SAMHSA, "The work that Iris House is doing through their Keep It 100 media campaign . . . is a wonderful example of how essential the work of community-based organizations is to reducing the rate of new HIV infections."
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, and his reporting and analysis have appeared in Ebony, The Advocate, ColorLines, The Body and other media. McCollum blogs on politics, pop culture and Black gay news at rod20.com.