Why style over substance doesn’t really work when It comes to ads about HIV

Published 21, Aug, 2014
Author // Guest Authors - Revolving Door

:Michael Burtch with a look at The Impulse Group’s HIV campaign video “Knowing", featuring a serodiscordant couple’s attempts to make sex work

Why style over substance doesn’t really work when It comes to ads about HIV

The internet is abuzz with praise for the latest safer-sex campaign by L.A. based HIV/AIDS prevention advocates The Impulse Group and the marketing and branding company The Advisorie (who claim on their website that they get “really excited about two things: Business Strategy and Interior Design.”) who have produced a PSA (which they annoyingly refer to as a “film”) called “Knowing” about knowing/asking/telling your HIV status.

The video (see below) has had over 162,000 views to date on youtube and received praise from across the cyber universe including Queer websites like Guy Spy (who have called it “sexy and smart”), Accidental Bear (who called it “informative and powerful”), and the conservative Queerty (who called it “non-preachy and superhot”).

When the campaign began popping up on my newsfeed on Facebook and Twitter as well as some of my favourite gay entertainment/news sites, I decided it may be time to sit down and view what all the fuss was about. For shits and giggles I decided it might be fun to live blog my reaction. What follows is my unedited first response. . . . 

10: This dude has an old lady bathroom.

16: 16 seconds in and there’s nudity! #Winning!

20: I really need to get a smart phone.

34: I’m confused, what are they fighting about? Did Jonas cheat? And what is up with gay dudes always having super professional looking profile photos? Is this Jonas a part time model? That ain’t no selfie.

50: Oh, I love Eli Lieb! Recognized his voice right away! Points for using an openly gay, independent singer-songwriter!

51:  With all due respect to Eli Lieb though, this PSA would be so much better if they used this  cover of Rhinanna’s ‘Stay’ instead.

53: I like this dude’s hair.

100: Ok, the sexy nerd looks familiar. He looks like the nerd from the Taylor Swift parody video for “You Belong To Me”. Ok, I just checked and it’s not the same dude. Maybe he’s an Andrew Christian model ? No?  Ok, now I’m watching the gay (gayer?) version of the music video “Call On Me. I might be falling into a bit of a youtube hole here...(pulls himself back to the task at hand).

107: Ugh, people who use Office Messenger to chat who are fuckin’ five feet apart. These two are the worst.

107: Billy’s asking why the long face. Reminds me of a joke. A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says “Why the long face?” The horse says “Because I’m a horse.”

122: So he broke up with Jonas. He of the glamorous black and white profile pic. Ok. So, um, when’s this dude getting HIV. Tick tock here, this PSA is almost half over.

133: Play it cool Billy. Play it cool. Dude JUST broke up with his boyfriend.

143: This dude takes a lot of baths.

154: Ok, wait. Who gets their HIV results mailed to them?! And why couldn’t he get a rapid HIV test!? Wait. Was this his ‘plans’ for the night? Get drunk, run a bath, view my results, possibly slit my wrists in the tub? And no Hep-C test? What about testing for other sexually transmitted infections which, if he did have, may have made him more susceptible to having contracted HIV? And who gets their results mailed to them or available to take home unopened? I don’t know who this Dr. Michael Gladstein is, but Parker needs to get himself a new Doctor stat. In Ontario you have to do 20 minutes of pre-counselling when receiving an HIV test just to ensure you can cope with a possible positive test result and are educated about the disease!

213: Am I supposed to think Jonas barebacked Parker without telling him his status, possibly exposing him to HIV? Because that’s not explicitly said and I’m starting to think dudes just freaking out because they’ve been dating for a while, and Jonas only just told him about his HIV status, and Parker freaked out. Remember this famous scene from the vastly superior Australian health and wellness web series Queer As Fuck? I’m pretty sure Parker is playing the role of Aaron here, in which case, good for you Jonas for dumping Parker. Dudes an asshole. #TeamJonas

214: Parker had a PCR Test, which I deduced from freeze framing his test results. This test detects the genetic material of HIV itself, and can identify HIV in the blood within 2-3 weeks of infection. This is slightly confusing however because most people only have access to the less expensive Antibody Tests, and due to HIV’s Window Period, require follow-up testing. This PSA may mislead others about testing.

215: Ok, second thought. Doctors typically only perform a PCR Test if you’ve knowingly come into contact with HIV, which suggests Jonas knowingly failed to disclose his HIV status and may have infected Parker. Given that North America leads the world in HIV Criminalization charges this PSA may only be contributing to the pro-criminalization contingent’s fears of the HIV+. 

245: Ok, confused again. Dude wouldn’t have dinner with Billy and the next thing you know there jumping into the Library for an impromptu make-out session?

247: Twist!

248: Perhaps we need to discuss why “Poz. Undetectable.” can be problematic.

3:43 Billy’s a bottom. Shocker.

3:54 Condom product placement! The Impulse Group give themselves a shout-out too.

4:06 Who the fuck is this guys Doctor!? He gets his test results texted to him now!? 

4:27 Is the point of this PSA that if you disclose your HIV status you’re a ‘good’ guy, but if you don’t know it, withhold it, or delay in disclosing it you’re not deserving of a relationship?

4:29 I’m giving this PSA two out of five stars, and mostly because it’s so pretty to look at.


The very things that make an HIV prevention ad successful (namely sexual explicitness) are the very things that work against its’ dissemination. Social media then is a new opportunity to shun the limitations of traditional, sex-negative media in connecting with a target audience who aren’t in poverty (not everyone can afford the internet at home or have private access to it at work). PSA’s however, are complicated beasts that require a committee for construction but often result in a camel (a negative maxim that ‘a camel is a horse designed by committee’) because of it. I don’t know if too many cooks is to blame for the failure of the “Knowing” campaign, or too few, but it certainly doesn’t translate to a Canadian audience and it isn’t succinct. The fact that it’s open to numerous interpretations, some quite negative, is a problem that should have been identified before its release. 

“Knowing”’s portrayal of a successful serodiscordant relationship may be the best thing about this PSA, but even that gets muddled by The Impulse Group’s follow-up “Open” (second video below) depicting the couple having a threesome, Parker staring solemnly at Billy’s HIV meds, and then their Trick getting tested for HIV and treated for syphilis (Seriously, why else the needle in the butt). I debated live blogging the follow-up but I’m thankful I decided against it because it really is a total mess. (Though it’s still attracted over 19,000 views. (God knows what anyone watching it took away from it.)

The good news is, despite both video’s being less than a year old, in the era of PrEP both of these safer-sex PSA’s already seem dated and antiquated. The bad news is, I probably spent more time contemplating and meditating on them then the Impulse Group took creating them.  

About the author: Michael Burtch is a former PositiveLite.com columnist and AIDS Service Organization worker now living in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on twitter at @MichaelBurtch. 

About the Author

Guest Authors - Revolving Door

Guest Authors - Revolving Door

The Revolving Door is the place where we publish occasional articles by guest writers. If you would like to submit an article for publication, please contact editor Bob Leahy at editor@positivelite.com