Shining a light on campaign strategy

Who knew it could be so controversial calling for HIV prevention campaigns tailored for gay men under thirty?

I’m saying gay men under thirty have different prevention information needs, and good campaign strategy shouldn’t wait until infection rates begin rising before investing in campaigns tailored to meet those needs.

That’s just common sense, and not a very exciting news story, until the AIDS Council disagrees — and then there’s a fight and quick, everybody, gather round! Place your bets and let’s get ready to rumble… In yesterday’s edition of MCV, by Rachel Cook, I read:

‘”Anyone who understands anything about health promotion wouldn’t attempt to blame the ads,” Kennedy said. “We do not agree with Daniel’s analysis and his claim that VAC does nothing for young, gay men is just demonstrably false.”‘

I don’t blame the ads for rising infection rates, and I don’t claim VAC does nothing for young gay men. Putting words in my mouth doesn’t help Mike’s credibility in responding to my concerns.

The hostile response does illustrate why I don’t place much weight on the feedback VAC quotes in support of the porn image campaign’s relevance to men under thirty. When they react with such hostility to criticism, it’s little wonder they don’t hear it much.

In my case, it’s a massive overreaction, since I am broadly supportive of that campaign: infection rates have steadied in the age brackets it was designed for. I’m concerned about a lack of campaigns targeted for men under thirty, and the porn image campaign doesn’t cover them.

Apparently, when they’re not in the country, Mike Kennedy, Colin Batrouney (health promotion manager) and Jason Asselin (health educator) are happy to agree with me. For example:

Kennedy M, Batrouney C, Asselin J (2008) “Shining a light on gay anal sex: community reactions to an explicit campaign promoting condom use for anal sex with casual partnersAIDS 2008 XVII International AIDS Conference (Abstract THPE0387).

They describe holding “focus groups with the campaign’s target population, men in their 30s and 40s” and later conclude “prevention campaigns will need precise targeting and generalised campaigns will be less effective”.

In their own words, the campaign was not developed for (or focus tested with) men under thirty, campaigns need precise targeting, and you can’t rely on a single campaign to fit everybody.

Again, quoting Mike’s own words, the porn image campaign achieved only 40% recognition among men under thirty at Midsumma Carnival. (Okay, the “only” part is mine.)

Coming back to how VAC receives critical feedback: the abstract states “Community responses were generally very positive but an interesting subset of negative responses was demonstrably tapping into internalised homophobia triggered by images of gay sex in public media.”

This makes it clear the authors interpret positive feedback as the general rule and critical feedback as the exception. It concerns me that the Executive Director of an organisation that provides counselling feels it’s okay to diagnose internalised homophobia in men he’s never met, simply because they don’t identify with images/themes in a campaign, and to dismiss their responses on that basis.

Some audience members do experience internalised homophobia; in fact, it’s something we all struggle to overcome. Research by the American psychologists Michael Ross, Simon Rosser and colleagues (2008) in AIDS Education & Prevention has shown a strong connection between internalised homonegativity and increased rates of unsafe sex.

Kennedy, Batrouney & Asselin’s abstract admits the porn image campaign does not meet the needs of those men.

Continuing the theme of VAC not taking critical responses seriously, the abstract suggests “Campaign design should include draft responses to such negative criticism”. In other words, community debate is met with message management and canned public relations messages.

I’m going to conclude with a question: if Mike is right and there was no lack of campaigns targeting young men specifically, why did they just accept Department of Health funding to develop one?