6 min

Condom country living

We test drive ACT's safe-sex campaign

SIMPLE, SEXY... AND COMICAL. The "Welcome To Condom Country" came together quickly, but garners good reviews. Credit: Xtra files

Is Toronto Condom Country?

Judging purely from optics, it would be easy to think so, since the AIDS Committee Of Toronto saddled up its campaign promoting safe sex. The man-lusting cowboys of the $400,000 blitz have popped up everywhere from garbage cans, banners and transit advertising to newspapers, telling us “Welcome To Condom Country,” and “Ride Safely.”

The initiative goes back to July 2000 when a University Of Toronto study indicated that the HIV infection rate among men who have sex with men in Ontario seemed to be going up. But it wasn’t until May of this year that the volunteer creative team, Naked Creative Consultancy, popped by Woody’s one night for a drink to do some market research. (By contrast, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation interviewed 200 men to prepare for its annual US$250,000 safe-sex campaign.)

When Naked floated its ideas by ACT for approval in mid-May, there were less than two weeks to get the campaign ready for a Pride Week launch.

How’s it gone over? The media loves the ads, with many outlets giving the launch coverage and offering free space for the ads. Philip Morris doesn’t like ’em. The US megacorp says it violates the copyright on the Marlboro Man cigarette campaign; it’s considering legal action.

Xtra assembled its own panel of armchair critics. Here’s what they said and how they rated the campaign’s effectiveness (out of a possible five stars).


I saw one of the ads in a bus shelter the other day, which was a location other than the traditional gay rags or the Church and Wellesley area, so it made more of an impact on me. The imagery was a neat play on the barebacking thing with all the horses – riding with or without a saddle. I don’t know how intentional the reference was, since not everyone’s familiar with the term “barebacking,” so it’s like an inside joke.

I don’t think it would change someone’s mind about using condoms or not, especially in the heat of the moment. I don’t think even the best campaign could be that successful, until AIDS affects someone personally.

Hearing that HIV was rising in Toronto fit in with the trend that it’s rising all over the place, so I had heard that information before. On the other hand, it hasn’t affected my group of friends personally, so I think there are two different worlds.

I first heard about safe sex when I was elementary school. I used to be involved with the gay youth group in Ottawa when I was 16, so my detailed information about safe sex came from there. In my relationships, it’s come up that it would be nice not to use condoms, but it wasn’t really a negotiation. I dated a guy for a year and a half and we didn’t use protection most of the time. We didn’t talk about it, it just started happening. I got tested before the relationship and towards the ends of the relationship.



First off, it’s great to see the Marlboro Man doing something good for people’s health instead of being a dark horseman of the cancer apocalypse. It’s a very intriguing and arresting image because it’s something familiar given a slightly unfamiliar twist. There is a bit of disconnect as far as getting the message across. I don’t think it’s in anyway a statement on tobacco or the history of the Marlboro Man – it’s just a convenient cowboy icon they can play off of. It could have just as easily been a reference to a John Wayne western, which might have been just as controversial.

And they can probably play off of the Marlboro Man without any lawsuits because Philip Morris is busy enough in the courtrooms as it is. It doesn’t need any publicity in bashing an AIDS committee.

As far as flouting copyright laws, the public doesn’t care. Appropriation of symbols is very fashionable these days. And the fact that they’re taking an evil symbol and using it for something good – I don’t think anybody has to worry about Philip Morris’s best interests.

The vast majority of social marketing campaigns are so dull and preachy. I can’t think of any other memorable ones; Greenpeace does some compelling stuff. The strength in “Condom Country” is that it’s not trying to do too much. It’s raising the issue rather than trying to change behaviour. I think it knows its limitations.



I think it’s a very romantic campaign. I think the underlying theme of intimacy is really big. When you look at two guys riding on the horse in their complete cowboy get-up, it’s like an HIV Harlequin romance. What one would see on the cover of a really good trashy novel, “Bob loves Terry on the Ponderosa.”

I was there in the mid-’80s, when the first message about safe sex was, “Know your partners and don’t have a lot of them.” This was in the era when poppers were thought to cause AIDS.

My messages about HIV and AIDS have always come from the AIDS Committee Of Toronto. In the past, I’ve volunteered for them and done paid work and I’ve been politically involved, and ACT was the only one delivering the message. I remember a campaign from at least five years ago, with a series of different faces – people infected and affected – which I found to be incredibly effective.

I would say that for the last few years I felt that ACT had become just another layer of bureaucracy in terms of HIV and AIDS. As I’m not in the AIDS community and I’m not on Church St a lot, I wasn’t seeing anything new from them.

But with this, ACT looks to me like a reinvigorated organization. This campaign speaks to me that they’re recommitted. This pamphlet and the campaign were extremely well-executed. The timing during Pride Week. It strikes me now as a very vigorous organization.



The image is comical to me because I grew up on a farm and I know two guys can ride the same horse and it has nothing to do with sex. There is sex implied, but there is a clear difference between this campaign and the really racy stuff they used to do – where they’d have two muscle jocks and a guy holding his hand over a condom covered dick, saying something like, “Get it on, get it hard.”

But there is no more implied sexual innuendo here than the incestuous lesbian La Senza ads, Eatons ads or Point Zero ads which eroticize young people. To say these ads are racy is to not pay attention to what’s out there in the advertising community.

I’ve been to the bathhouses since the campaign launched and I have to say it hasn’t really affected people’s behaviour. But maybe my expectations are not realistic. From my perspective, this will hit people who are obviously gay. I don’t know if it will reach men who don’t identify as gay. I think they would need something more hard-hitting for them. Part of me is just glad that they’re doing something.

I’m very sexually active. I have several fuck buddies. I was in a relationship for a while, but it was very open. It’s my preference to use condoms, but I would be lying if I said I used condoms every single time I had sex in my whole life.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I didn’t immediately see the cigarette connection. Maybe it’s because I grew up on a farm and I don’t think all images of men on horses belong to Marlboro.



When I first saw the ad, it looked like a cigarette ad and then I noticed “Condom Country” and I thought it was so fucking cool. We were all going off on it. You’re about to look at something you think is something else.

Since I first came out, I’ve always use condoms. I don’t remember being told about them in school or from any other safe-sex campaigns – they were introduced to me by one of my first partners, when I was 16.

For me safe sex is definitely using condoms, getting to know the other person, getting tested for HIV and knowing what your status is. Being honest is also important. I have encountered guys who wanted to have sex without condoms and I just made them use it. No glove no love. They were usually cool with it. I’ve never experienced major problems and it’s only happened a couple of times.

I think these ads really get the message across. They say condoms are safe, that you’re entering an area that’s safe. I find the ads flirtatious, masculine and very sexy.