4 min

Outlooks rejects AIDS prevention ad

And won't reimburse the organizers

Credit: Robin Perelle

What do Outlooks magazine and Pattison Outdoor have in common? Both have refused to run AIDS Vancouver’s new HIV prevention campaign. Pattison Outdoor, owned by local billionaire Jimmy Pattison, controls everything from billboards to bus shelters throughout much of the Lower Mainland. Outlooks describes itself as Canada’s national gay community magazine.

Minutes after receiving word of Outlooks’ refusal to run the ads, campaign organizer Phillip Banks is almost too stunned to speak. “I’m shocked,” he says. “I’m like really, really shocked and enormously disappointed.”

This is such an important campaign, he continues. It comes at a time when HIV prevention campaigns specifically targeting gay men in Canada have been “derailed” for seven or eight years.

This campaign is meant to “reinvigorate” the discussion, Banks says. With gay men accounting for about 52 percent of new HIV infections, “it’s just such an important issue.

“I was mildly shocked when Pattison rejected the creative for its billboards,” Banks continues. “But for a gay publication to do this…” he trails off.

Outlooks publisher Roy Heale says he’s just following the guidelines he recently drafted in response to his readers’ and distributors’ concerns. The guidelines “prohibit both graphic and overtly implied depictions of sexual activity within advertisements.”

Says Heale: “We feel that certain things are acceptable and certain things aren’t.” It’s his responsibility to know what his readers are looking for, he adds. “We cater to our readership, and that is what a publication is supposed to do.”

Heale says Outlooks tightened its guidelines after receiving complaints about two ad campaigns earlier this year. Now, he says, he has to stick to those guidelines-without exception. “You can’t just make exceptions and break rules. Unfortunately-or fortunately-you have to stand behind them.”

Heale says he may, however, reconsider how the guidelines should apply to AIDS organizations when they next come up for review. But until the guidelines are changed, he won’t enforce them selectively.

Besides, he adds, AIDS Vancouver got its ad in a day late. “Obviously, AIDS Vancouver had something that was controversial,” Heale says. “It’s a shame [they] came in so late, so there was no time for discussion. If you get your ads in on time, there’s opportunity for discussion.”

Banks says he didn’t expect to need any discussion. “I never even imagined” that HIV prevention ads would need approval from a gay publication, he says.

Banks denies receiving a copy of Outlooks’ new guidelines. Heale says the guidelines were sent out to all advertisers after they were implemented in February. Guidelines or not, Banks questions the principle behind the policy. Images suggesting gay men having sex should be “within the realm of acceptable in a queer publication,” he says.

This is an HIV-prevention campaign, he emphasizes. “If the publication doesn’t have the mettle to take on an issue such as this…” Banks trails off again. Then it “really forces me to wonder” whether Outlooks has a place as a national gay publication, he concludes.

“I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of an abdication of its responsibility to the gay community,” he adds.

That’s because he won’t be “sitting here getting all the letters” from angry readers, Heale retorts. “After seven and a half years, we know what’s going to create negative feedback from the readers.”

AIDS Vancouver could have found another way to get its message across, Heale continues-one that wasn’t sexually explicit. “If you have to use that kind of graphic to get a message across, then it’s pretty sad,” he says.

The publisher points to the 2001 Condom Country campaign as an example of an effective ad that didn’t need any sexual images. The ad featured two men, fully clothed, riding horses and welcoming people to condom country.

Banks says the feedback he’s received so far suggests his new ads are more effective. This isn’t just a simple “use a condom” message, he points out. The new campaign goes beyond condom use to challenge the underlying assumptions men make about the people they’re about to have sex with-and whether they’re HIV-positive or -negative.

The new AIDS Vancouver ads feature several images of men in sexually suggestive poses with captions such as: “He’d tell me if he were positive.” (Turn to page 3 of this issue to view an ad.)

Outlooks is the only gay publication in Canada that’s expressed any problem with the ads, Banks notes.

In fact, the ads are now running in 32 publications across the country-gay and straight. Only one other publication, a straight alternative in Winnipeg called Uptown Magazine, rejected some of the ads.

Granted, Outlooks did offer AIDS Vancouver a bit of extra time (Heale says 24 hours; Banks says one) to submit a different image after rejecting the original ad. Banks initially refused, reluctant both to compromise his principles and to spend money the campaign “just doesn’t have” on a new image.

In the end, Banks re-submitted the same ad-with its image blurred and a new note inviting readers to look at the image on the campaign’s website.

Heale says that was unacceptable. Banks wrote “censored” across the ad, Heale explains. But “the ad wasn’t censored. It didn’t meet our guidelines.”

Banks says he also submitted a second substitute image: a big empty box with a black border and the campaign’s website in the middle. Outlooks rejected that one, too.

Heale doesn’t know why his staff rejected the almost-blank box. By then it was just “way past deadline,” he guesses.

Banks says he feels disrespected by the whole encounter. And to add insult to injury, he says Outlooks won’t reimburse the money AIDS Vancouver pre-paid for the ad space.

“They’re actually taking money away from HIV prevention,” Banks says. AIDS Vancouver could have used the money to run the ad in other publications, he notes.

Heale is unimpressed. His refusal to reimburse AIDS Vancouver’s money is in keeping with standard business practices, he says. “If you book space and your ad doesn’t arrive on time, you have to pay for the space.”

Banks says Outlooks’ decision to keep AIDS Vancouver’s money and reject its ad feels “punitive.”