2 min

Correcting the record

Safe-sex campaign attracts attention

The AIDS Committee Of Toronto made a boo-boo when it launched its new safe-sex campaign.

Ads in the Official Pride Guide claim Toronto has the highest new HIV infection rate in North America. But nobody knows if that’s true.

“Statistics are collected by the provinces and the states. Everybody does it differently,” says Charles Roy, ACT’s executive director. “Toronto’s is maybe the highest, but it would be comparing apples to oranges.” San Francisco, New York and Vancouver are also reporting an increase in new HIV infections among men who have sex with men.

ACT ran a correction in the 55,000 copies of its latest newsletter. Roy says leaving the claim uncorrected would hurt ACT’s credibility.

“If people start questioning the validity of our information, they won’t trust anything we say,” Roy says.

The core of the ad campaign – which features photos of horse-riding cowboys touching or almost touching – claims simply “HIV is on the rise in Toronto. Ride Safely.” University Of Toronto statistics say new infection rates among men who have sex with men are up seven percent over last year, up 34 percent compared to 1996.

The ads, which popped up on bus shelters, garbage cans, stickers and posters all over the downtown during Pride Week, have caused a splash. The photo made the front page of the Toronto Sun and an inside page of The Globe And Mail. A lot of media outlets, including the gay press and the Toronto Transit Commission, ran the ads for free or at big discounts.

“It was sensational in the best sense of the word,” Roy says. “It’s been everywhere. I didn’t know what to expect because we’ve never done anything like this before.”

In the fall, CFMT, Showcase and the new gay cable station, Pride Vision, are donating airtime for a TV commercial that’s in the works. From Fri, Jul 1 to Aug 6, Labatt is donating $3 to the campaign for every case of Blue, Blue Light and Ice sold from the Church St Beer Store.

Not everybody has embraced the campaign. The text, “Welcome to condom country,” echoes the cigarette ad slogan, “Come to Marlboro country.” Marlboro’s lawyers are looking into it.

“It’s a good cause, but it appears that it is an unauthorized and objectionable use of our copyrighted material,” says Robert Kaplan, director of communications at Phillip Morris, which owns the Marlboro brand. “In general we would object to the use.”

(In California in the 1990s, Marlboro-styled images were used for an anti-smoking campaign which continued unimpeded by Phillip Morris.)

The group HEAL Toronto, which questions the existence of HIV, called ACT’s message “fearful and homophobic.”

The federal, provincial and city governments, scared by the statistics, coughed up a one-time $400,000 for the campaign. Roy says ACT will be asking them for on-going funding for ads.