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Pickett Fences: A Crisis Obscured

July/August 2001

Yes, mami, sexy antiviral ads do lead to risky sex. Okay. It's not as if a hot young stud, let's say me, sees an ad for a delightful new protease inhibitor featuring busty, glistening hard bodies workin' their Thigh Masters and says, "Hey dude, I got a hankerin' for a little un-negotiated, un-safe sex. Where's my lip gloss?"

It's not that direct; it's not that cause and effect. But pharmaceutical ads which consistently portray unrealistic images, and highly sexualized images, help create an environment in which HIV is made to look fun and challenging, a way to pick up dates.

Zerit -- I make you sexy good time, yes.

Take me, daddy. And don't waste a drop.

Of course everything in our society is sold to us by means of unrealistic, sexually-charged imagery. And of course we have those lovely ads of women skipping through posey fields to shill pills snuffing the sniffles, burying the blues, giving them their lives back. Direct-to-consumer marketing of any pharmaceutical is highly problematic. But it's more than problematic in the case of anti-HIV medications. HIV is not about a drippy nose or suburban ennui. HIV is a vicious, ugly, disgusting, demoralizing and always fatal communicable disease, and a fully preventable one.

Prevention relies on human behavior, and human behavior is all about perceptions. HIV drugs that sell us a vision of Baywatch (may it rest in peace) or a joyful commitment ceremony don't tell us "urgency," or "crisis." They don't tell us the "horror show" awaiting us. They don't bring to mind lipodystrophy, neuropathy, heart attack or kidney failure.

They shout everything is coming up roses! They normalize HIV. And there ain't nothing normal about it. Admittedly, it's not just the advertising of the drugs but their efficacy that sends this message. The slick imagery coupled with the drugs' success at slowing viral progress augment, enhance complacency and denial -- not only very human conditions but VIP guests with first row seats at many sexually risky encounters and instances when needles are shared as well.

Frankly, most people are educated, and know how to protect themselves. That goes for sex addicts, drug addicts, me and you, Betty and Bob and the octuplets. Advocates who yammer on and on about "just getting the information out there" are only partly there. Yes, we must do consistent, continuous education. Yes, condoms must be made available. But we must go further. We know smoking cigarettes is dangerous to our bodies. And yet we light up. Everyone knows about HIV. And yet we get fucked without a how are ya? Or a condom.

It's not that we don't know we're putting ourselves at risk. Somehow we are making decisions that ignore what we know, that are about perceptions, or misperceptions for that matter.

Of course, human behavior is multiply influenced. Twenty years into the epidemic, and we're just tired of being scared, and we're just tired of being safe, and we just want to be like other kids, to just fit in. Besides, hello! HELLO! The big problem is in Africa. Those poor people! We need to worry about Africa. We need to be concerned about Africa. What can we do to help Africa?

What is in the subtext here?

Twenty years into the epidemic and the Bush administration proposes under-funding for AIDS programs, with a few puny increases and unbelievably, flat funding for the Ryan White CARE Act, a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of us with HIV/AIDS. There are 40,000 new infections every year in the United States, 20,000 of those under the age of 25, and more and more people are living with the disease than ever. Why flat funding? Why a few tiny increases akin to me flipping you a nickel and you a dime? What is in the subtext of that?

Twenty years into the epidemic, and while most people know a helluva lot about it, many still think it doesn't apply to them.

Twenty years into this madness and HIV is a "lifestyle."

Evil pharmaceutical companies are not the only ones who manufacture the illusion. Recently HIV/AIDS-savvy MTV ran a marketing campaign I first noticed on a huge billboard while cruising the Kansas interstate and then back home on Chicago public transit.

It was a general awareness campaign for the network. "Talk to your partner about MTV," advised one billboard, featuring a close-up of a couple in black and white.

"People need to know about MTV," said another. "Many people with MTV still lead happy and productive lives."

I'm itchy. Do I have MTV?

What's going on here?

Hmmmm, could it be a very creative and well-executed spoof of HIV awareness and prevention messages?

What's in the subtext there?

What's in the subtext of the viatical ad featuring that guy with the ripples and nipples? Besides a clear yummy and delicious?

HIV is not a threat. It has a sense of humor. And it's a good lay.

There are almost a million people in this country infected with HIV. Most of them can tell you about the great jokes HIV tells, and the incredible erotic potential of "moderate" diarrhea. Well, maybe "most of them" is a bit of a stretch because actually, one third of that million can't articulate their exciting HIV adventure. They don't know they're having one. They haven't been tested. Or they've been tested and they haven't gone back for their results. Or it's not about them. Or what's to worry about?

It's a bike ride. It makes me giggle. And it gets me horny, baby.

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To read more of Jim Pickett's columns, click here.

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This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
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