There’s an inherent problem in using shock or shame in a prevention campaign for sexually-transmitted infections, and it’s the effect your effort will have on people living with these diseases.
Sure, you want people to have safer sex. But you should also want to be sensitive to the suffering of people who have caught STIs — whether through unsafe casual sex, from a deceptive partner, or even as a result of rape.
That’s what really bothers me about this campaign from The Women’s Fund of Omaha’s Adolescent Health Project. It uses gross-out graphics to shock viewers by visualizing the most dramatic external symptoms of herpes, but in doing so it shames millions of herpes carriers by reducing their identity to genital outbreaks.
It is estimated that one out of every six Americans aged 14 to 49 years has genital herpes. That’s an alarming figure, but they’re not all irresponsible people. Nobody wants to get herpes. You may know someone who contracted herpes from a cheating lover they trusted enough to have condomless sex with, or someone whose lover lied about being a carrier. Or you may know someone who got herpes through non-consensual penetration, whether they were inebriated or violently attacked. These are not numbers; they are your family, your neighbours, your coworkers. And their lifelong relationship with this incurable viral infection deserves our empathy, not our derision or disgust.
The agency behind the campaign, Serve Marketing, is an all-volunteer pro bono ad agency. I think that’s awesome. I just wish they had thought more about serving a little more empathy with this one.