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Avatars -- Reaching Gay Men

June 18, 2012

In the past we have highlighted the work of our colleagues who are using virtual tools to reach their target audience. This month, LGBTQ pride month, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF) launched a new campaign that incorporates the use of avatars and texting to promote HIV testing. We asked them to share more about the campaign, and will follow up with them in six months to share their lessons learned.

And we are pleased to be working with SFAF as they help us plan our satellite session on the state of new media and HIV at AIDS 2012.

Screen shot of Many Shades of Gay website.

Screen shot of Many Shades of Gay website.

The Many Shades of Gay

By Neil Giuliano

We have made tremendous progress in recent years to reduce new HIV infections, here in San Francisco and nationwide. But with infection rates still on the rise among gay and bisexual men -- the only risk group for which this is the case -- we know we can do better. That's why we are proud to introduce an innovative new public health campaign to encourage gay and bisexual men to test regularly for HIV and make frequent HIV testing the social norm.

The campaign is called "Many Shades of Gay." It celebrates the diversity of the gay community while focusing on one simple message: No matter what you're into, get an HIV test every six months.

At the heart of the effort is an interactive and educational website that invites users to create a personalized avatar -- a tiny, digital version of themselves. Described as "the most robust avatar generator ever built," it contains literally billions of customization options, including wardrobe, accessories, tattoos, and piercings -- allowing gay and bisexual men to create an avatar as conservative or campy as they desire.

Once an avatar is created, it informs the user about the importance of regular HIV testing and helps them to find the nearest testing location. The website allows users to opt in to receive reminders via email or text from their avatar when it's time to get another HIV test. Guys who create an avatar are invited to keep the campaign going by sharing it through social media channels and inviting friends to join the effort.

The site also includes a channel for HIV-positive guys, which provides health information and resources to connect them to HIV treatment and care. Studies show that early detection and treatment of HIV can dramatically reduce a person's chances of spreading the virus to someone else.

"Many Shades of Gay" is a collaboration between San Francisco AIDS Foundation, San Francisco Department of Public Health, ISIS, Alliance Health Project, Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center, Mission Neighborhood Health Center, and funders from the public and private sector. Global advertising agency ATTIK provided pro bono creative development for the campaign.

We encourage guys to create their own avatar today by visiting

Neil Giuliano is the chief executive officer of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Miguel Gomez is the director of and senior communications advisor in the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policyat the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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See Also
Fact Sheet: HIV/AIDS and Young Men Who Have Sex With Men
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
More on HIV Prevention Campaigns & Programs for Gay Men

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