"I Talk Because": A Better Way to Do HIV/AIDS Awareness Ads

In case you missed it, on Dec. 7 the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH) began airing an HIV prevention public service announcement (PSA) with the tagline, "It's Never Just HIV." The PSA targets young men who have sex with men (MSM) by flashing scary images that warn that HIV can lead to bone loss, dementia and anal cancer. Since its debut, this ad has polarized the HIV community. Some activists, such as Larry Kramer, believe this ad is a much needed wake-up call; others, such as our news editor, Kellee Terrell, believe it does more harm than good because it demonizes gay sex, being gay and being HIV positive.

In my opinion, "It's Never Just HIV" seems as effective as the phrase, "Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten."

(See the popular, but phony PSA image that surfaced online in the early 2000s below.)

Phony PSA

But all is not lost in the world of HIV awareness ads.

One exemplary project is the social media campaign "I Talk Because ...." The concept is simple. Anyone can shoot and upload a video sharing why he or she talks about HIV/AIDS. Think "It Gets Better," but with HIV instead.

"I Talk Because ..." was started in 2009 by New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn and other New York City-based HIV organizations including AIDS Community Research Initiative of America (ACRIA), Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, Harlem United and VillageCare, as a means to bring HIV back onto people's radars. "We were concerned and worried that the conversation about HIV/AIDS wasn't at the level it should be in New York anymore. That part of the complacency that we all talk about comes out of people not talking about HIV/AIDS," Quinn said last December at "Going Viral Against HIV and STIs," a forum on social media.

Since its inception, dozens of celebrities (including media personality Wendy Williams, Reverend Al Sharpton, White House AIDS Czar Jeff Crowley and talk show host Kelly Ripa) and non-celebrities have submitted videos, bringing about thousands of views. As a result, the project was voted by Mashable.com, the popular social media news site, one of the top five YouTube projects making a difference.

The organizations involved are very proud of the impact that the campaign continues to have on people. "The campaign debunks HIV myths and gives the facts, not just amongst peers, but across generations. It encourages conversations within families. And ultimately a willingness to talk is worthwhile because it breaks down boundaries and stigma," ACRIA's executive director Daniel Tietz told TheBody.com. And Emma DeVito, the chief executive and president of VillageCare, said, "The stories of real people, and of how HIV has affected their lives, is a powerful way to bring home the message that AIDS has not gone away, and that HIV continues its assault on New Yorkers every day."

Another reason to like this campaign: Compared to "It's Never Just HIV," which cost $726,000 of federal grant money (as in taxpayer money) to make, "I Talk Because ..." is a steal since all the videos are user-generated. Not only is the campaign essentially free, instead of focusing on one narrative, it brings about dozens of personal and meaningful messages to create a diverse range of PSAs.

Honestly, I wish we had more campaigns such as this one, because it helps people realize that it's OK to talk about HIV. Conversations can encourage those who are afraid of HIV to get tested and know their status. It encourages those who are HIV negative to practice safer sex techniques, so that they can stay negative. And for those who are living with HIV, who may be too ashamed to get help, seeing people talk about HIV may be the push they need to reach out and get support.

So I encourage you to submit your own videos to "I Talk Because ...." In the meantime, I leave you with a few of my personal favorites.

Erin Uses Sign Language to Talk About HIV/AIDS

Simply Rob Reads a Poem About HIV/AIDS

Ronnie Kroell Talks About HIV/AIDS

Annie Mulgrew Talks About HIV/AIDS