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'Syphilis Explosion' Billboard Guy Is Not Afraid of Being a 'Slut Shamer'

Jan 29 2016 7:10 PM
'Syphilis Explosion' Billboard Guy Is Not Afraid of Being a 'Slut Shamer'

Screenshot via YouTube

We talked to the Aids Healthcare Foundation's senior creative director about the organization's freeSTDcheck.org campaigns, which many advocates have criticized for inciting fear around sex.

A strange feud between a dating app and a California AIDS advocacy group has come to a close. Last week, Tinder agreed to add information about nearby STI clinics to their app after being shamed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) in a billboard that associated swiping left with catching chlamydia. Tinder initially reacted to the billboards by issuing the organization a cease-and-desist letter, which AHF president Michael Weinstein called "tone deaf."

With its $1 billion budget, AHF is the largest nonprofit HIV/AIDS health care group in the world. In LA, though, the organization is better known for its iconic STD billboards that have ensured drivers stuck in traffic end up thinking about the bumps on their crotch as much as the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Unlike most Tinder dates, AHF's signage is maddeningly memorable, and its freeSTDcheck.org campaign particularly so. "Syphilis Explosion" reads one advertisement, the text hovering above a lava-spewing volcano. "19 Million STDs Yearly" reads another, next to Lady Liberty gasping in shock. In 2013, the organization paired up with multimedia artist Bill Barminski on a series of surreal billboards that featured the question "Friends with Benefits?" next to unsettling double faces.

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But while some believe the nonprofit's visual stunts are bringing Keith Haring-esque playfulness to the oft drab work of encouraging condom use, critics charge that AHF is more concerned with distracting the public from the organization's shady business practices than combating STDs. Last year, AHF was accused of offering illegal kickbacks to employees and patients in an effort to boost funding from federal health programs. The nonprofit has also picked fights with LA County, claiming officials falsely accused the organization of over-billing $1.7 million for HIV/AIDS services, and launched a bizarre campaign against the antiretroviral HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention drug Truvada, dismissing it as a "party drug" even after medical experts deemed it effective for preventing HIV.

Because of its strange vendettas, perceived corruption, and its campaigns' alleged "fear mongering," AHF has, unsurprisingly, racked up many enemies in the AIDS advocacy world. But the nonprofit still does good work, creating greater awareness around STDs in cities across the country—including of course, Los Angeles, but also Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, New Orleans, and New York. You could say they've made ads for STD tests as normal as those for coconut water. I talked to AHF's senior creative director, Jason Farmer, about his most controversial campaigns, why he's not afraid of being called a "slut shamer," and which STDs he's itching to target next.

Images courtesy of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation

BROADLY: What is your creative process like? How do you decide which STDs people need to be reminded of on their commutes?
Jason Farmer: Syphilis and gonorrhea are always big, as you can probably tell [from the billboards], but it really is dependent on multiple things. As far as what folks should get tested for, that's often based on national averages and what we see. We do our own testing in our health care centers and retail pharmacies, and then we use that data to see what new STDs are on the rise.

The "Syphilis Explosion" billboard bears an uncanny resemblance to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's book Dianetics. Was that a conscious thing?
The idea wasn't to target Scientologists; that was just kind of a funny coincidence. Michael [Weinstein] saw that syphilis was spiking in California—the state ranked number two in cases at the time—and it looked like the rate was exploding or, you could even say, blowing up. I just took that idea and tried to create something that would catch someone's eye

Did you also hope someone would mistake the sign for the next Hollywood blockbuster and then realize they might have an STD?
Correct. That's not always the intention, but we do want to stand out. We did that with our Straight Outta Condoms campaign, too.

Were you surprised that Tinder reacted the way that they did?
We didn't plan on them having that response. But once we put up the billboards, at seven AM on a Friday, within two or three hours, we had a cease-and-desist letter. They reacted very quickly to that, but our intention wasn't to [specifically] go after them.

Some have criticized AHF for using a fear-based approach to STD prevention. Poz.com called the "Trust Him?" campaign, featuring suspicious partners glaring at their possibly-cheating significant others, "fear-mongering and slut-shaming." What is your response?
The reality is that people cheat on each other, and many don't use protection. We made a video with street interviews on the subject. As you will notice, there are many more people that were cheated on than cheaters. We are simply saying that if you are worried that your partner is cheating, make sure to protect yourself and get tested.

The most negative feedback we received was for our "Why Worry? Use A Condom," campaign; we had parents who contacted these specific billboard companies to take [the ads] down because they didn't want to have to explain what a condom was to their children. Our answer was, Why not? Why shouldn't you talk about this with your kids? You could even tell them that a condom is something adults use to make sure they don't hurt each other. You can explain things to children very easily.

Are you especially proud of any billboards?
Yeah, I'm proud of this campaign we did called Check Your Wiener, which we used with a photo of a dachshund [stuck between two hot dog buns]. I have two dachshunds, these little wiener dogs, and just thought it would be a fun play on words.

Do you dream about STDs?
I try not to, but it's hard sometimes.

Are there any that you'd love to see on a billboard next?
I have this idea for a vintage horror film-style poster featuring gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis as movie monsters. People could say it's kind of fear-based, I guess. The idea is to have an unknown, unseen monster, like The Fog, that is attacking [people].

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