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Views From the Front Lines: Fear-Based Campaigns

Fall 2011

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We spoke to four people with different perspectives on fear-based campaigns:

  • Bill Ryan -- Activist, author, consultant, psychotherapist, and professor of social work at McGill University
  • Alan Middleton -- Assistant professor of marketing and executive director, Schulich Executive Education Centre (SEEC), Schulich School of Business, York University
  • Brian Finch -- Publisher and editor for, regular contributor to Fab magazine; living with HIV for more than 25 years
  • Roseline Carter -- AIDS Calgary Awareness Association, team leader of Community Strategies

Bill Ryan

How did you respond to the "It's Never Just HIV" campaign when you first saw it?

I tend to give a campaign a chance by not reacting to the very first images I see because I try to get behind things a bit. When I looked at this campaign a little bit deeper, I thought that it was probably a step backwards in terms of what we want to present around HIV and prevention. I think it's pretty well been shown that shaming and frightening people are not effective strategies.

The purpose of a social marketing campaign is to target a particular group of people and try to influence a specific behaviour. The "It's Never Just HIV" campaign targeted young gay men in New York City and told them to "always use a condom." How successful do you think this campaign would have been at achieving its objective?


I think we have to be more sophisticated in terms of prevention. I think that we turn off [when confronted with this ad], especially younger gay men who don't want to hear the message and don't want to see it packaged the way it's been in the past. I'm concerned that we're just going back and starting over again with another generation of young men, using methods we didn't think worked for the older generation. That being said, the idea of always using a condom is a valid one as long as we acknowledge that not everyone is going to all the time and that harm reduction strategies that recognize this are promoted as well.

Fear-based campaigns are extremely controversial. In general, do you think this type of strategy serves to educate and empower or is it potentially disempowering and even harmful?

I've been working in this field since 1985. You don't know how many times I've heard arguments for and against fear-based messaging presented at different moments over the course of the last 25 years -- people saying that we have to scare the crap out of people to get them to take this seriously.

I look at all my friends who smoke. They don't look at the images on the cigarette packages, or they cover them up with other things, or they become totally neutralized to them. I think that, in some ways, we've got the same reaction to HIV messaging.

In my psychotherapy practice, I meet a lot of younger men who are so terrified that they're frozen around HIV. For others, for whom prevention messages are just part of the old familiar landscape, they just don't see them -- they just don't notice them. We're not reaching young gay men with these kinds of messages. I suspect that people flip through the magazine and avoid the prevention campaign ads. Or, for the ones who are so worried -- worried in a way that's pathological -- I don't think scary campaigns help them at all.

I think back to the Australian campaign of the late 80s, of the Grim Reaper -- who represented HIV -- walking around with a scythe, chopping people's heads off. There was another ad where the Grim Reaper is bowling ... rolling bowling balls down the alley and knocking people into pieces. An evaluation showed that this campaign didn't encourage safe behaviours. It actually discouraged them because people felt there was nothing they could do. ...

[This type of campaign] takes away people's sense of power and makes them feel like they're not actors in their own sexual lives and their own health, that they're victims.

When it comes to HIV prevention, how can messaging speak to people effectively?

I think that the idea that we can change a community's behaviour with posters or advertisements oversimplifies the issue terribly. I think that we have to use a multi-faceted approach, looking at different subgroups within the community and targeting them with different kinds of messages.

One of the things we need to do (and we haven't done it very well generally) is talk to gay men about their lives using more than just campaigns. I suspect that if you got groups of gay men talking to each other about the issues that confront them in their lives -- about loneliness and isolation, for example -- that that would go a lot further towards empowering them in their sexual lives than a campaign that has horror movie music playing in the background and images that frighten or shame people.

[This kind of a multi-faceted approach] makes it much more complicated: It's easy for governments or funding agencies to say, "Here, we're going to give you a couple of thousand dollars -- now make a campaign that will last a few weeks." But to actually work on some of the issues that underlie gay men's lives and aren't being addressed is more long-term and complex.

A number of years ago, I ran some focus groups for Health Canada around gay men's health and prevention. We tried to pick men who weren't involved in the community, who weren't spokespeople, and the thing that struck me more than anything else -- I went to about 12 cities across Canada -- was how detached these men were from their communities, how alienated they felt from their community, and how lonely. This issue keeps coming back: solitude, loneliness and the effects of that in people's lives.

Unless we start reacting to what men tell us are their issues and use those as door-openers into messages about health and taking care of oneself, we're only going to touch small pockets of people with our messages. I'm not sure that these [fear-based] campaigns help people feel that their lives are worth protecting when their self-esteem is low or they feel this loneliness that so many gay men feel. I believe that the traumatic experiences of having been the target of homophobia, especially as youth, is underestimated in the role that it plays in the adult lives of gay men.

I know that attacking the issue from such a broad perspective is hard to sell because it's long-term and it's multi-faceted but I think that we need to get into those sophisticated ways of doing prevention. Otherwise, we're just going to turn on the hose every once in a while, point it at the fire, then turn it off ... and pat ourselves on the back saying, "Well, we did this, we did that ... How come they're not changing their behaviours?"

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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication Prevention in Focus: Spotlight on Programming and Research. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
More Viewpoints on HIV Prevention

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