Opinion
3 min

A safer way to party and play?

A new approach to public health doesn’t please everyone

Time2PrEP for the Party.

Public Health Network/Youtube

Last year, Public Health Solutions, a New York–based non-profit health institute, released an ad campaign called Time2PrEP. It consists of three videos: “Time2PrEP For A Date?” which targeted young urban African American urban males, “Time2PrEP For Love?” which was a series of testimonials about PrEP, and “Time2PrEP For The Party?” which was about safe ways to party-and-play (PNP) with PrEP.  

“When PrEP came out, it was the obvious next step to try to get the funding to really promote PrEP,” explains Mary Ann Chiasson, the vice president of research and evaluation at the Public Health Solutions. She has been with Public Health Solutions for 16 years, but had also spent 14 years working at the New York City Health Department.

“We were only going to do one video and it would’ve been basically the longer video, ‘Time For Love.’ That was our thought. First our thought was to do sort of a retake of our first video, ‘The Morning After,’” she says. “We presented these scenarios in our focus groups and the guys were like, ‘Oh god no, please. We’ve seen that storyline a million times. Don’t do it — we’re sick of it.’ So we decided that we really wanted one video targeted specifically to young, African American, urban men, we wanted one for guys who party and play who are not reached by these other videos. And JB Phoenix agreed to do this.”

The clip, starring Phoenix, was undoubtedly the one that got the most attention — for the wrong reasons. In it, Phoenix is shown ready to go out, grabbing his keys, condoms and party drugs. We soon find him dancing topless in a bar, and he says, “I like to party.” He’s then back at home on Grindr, and he receives a daily notification telling him to take PrEP. “And I like to be safe,” he concludes.

Having a prolific porn star like Phoenix caused a stir — people don’t necessarily imagine someone who has sex for a living as the poster child for safer sex. But Chiasson explains that Phoenix has been using PrEP for three years and he’s been lecturing about the risks of HIV in high schools — it seemed like a good fit.

“We really wanted to target this population that isn’t part of the usual intervention,” Chiasson continues. Ultimately, the clips avoid the sort of educational tone prolific in most health PSAs, which are more about delivering information in measured tones.

And the reality, of course, is that men are PNP’ing anyway, and they’re not always the target audience when health advocates are promoting safer sex

The “Time2PrEP for the Party?” was particularly popular among the focus groups. “Everybody said, ‘I know a million guys like that. They’re out there, everywhere,’” Chiasson says. “And they’re not seeing those messages. And that’s why we chose that [concept].”

Of course, not everyone agrees with that message. Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), filed an FDA complaint against Gilead Health Sciences, the manufacturer of Truvada. The complaint claims that the video is harmful because it doesn’t make mention of condom use, and that it promotes illicit drug use. For the uninitiated, Weinstein is also infamously known for calling Truvada a “party drug.”

“It is frustrating that AHF continues to ignore the fact that PrEP is a proven tool that if taken as prescribed will prevent HIV,” said Kelsey Louie, CEO of GMHC, to Buzzfeed News. “Yet instead this organization spends its time filing complaints on the drug manufacturer.”

There is also the matter that the project was funded by Gilead itself — in that light, the videos could be seen more as commercials than as impartial testimonials regarding the effectiveness of Truvada.  

Chiasson, however, claims that Public Health Solutions worked totally and completely independently from Gilead Health Solutions, and that Gilead had no influence on the content. Public Health Solutions was required to submit the final videos and financial report by the end of the funding period, but Gilead did not see videos before the social media campaign started. Public Health Solutions, Chiasson asserts, had complete creative control.

“It was actually great because having worked with government funding before, and having all kinds of restrictions on what you can say, and how you can say it, and the words you can use, the images—it was quite nice to just do whatever you wanted to,” Chiasson says.

There are many different methods that can be used to get word out there about the effectiveness of PrEP. Public Health Solutions went for one specific approach, attempting to reach a portion of the gay population that aren’t traditionally focused on. But with 50,000 new HIV infections in the US every single year, it’s clear that  we need to start thinking of different approaches toward prevention.