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On Socks and Social Marketing - Honoring World AIDS Day

communication / communication research / featured / public health

More than 30 years since the first reported cases of AIDS, what does progress look like?

From its origins in fear and death, HIV has become a preventable, treatable, and hope-filled chronic illness. Though there has been significant progress both scientifically and socially, there is clearly much progress to be made – HIV is a leading cause of death by infectious disease, and fear, misperceptions, and stigma are still a very real challenge.

Take, for example, the media stir last month when Charlie Sheen revealed on the Today Show that he is HIV-positive. Sheen shared that he decided to make his health status public because recent partners allegedly threatened to disclose his diagnosis, blackmailing him for millions of dollars. His situation – and the commentary that followed his disclosure – is a sad yet compelling reminder of the stigma and myths that still surround HIV despite much progress over the past decades.

Yesterday marked the 27th World AIDS Day, held on December 1st each year since 1988. World AIDS Day was the first global health day and is an opportunity for people to (a) show their support for people who not only have fought HIV but are truly living with HIV and to (b) reflect on not only how far we’ve come but on what progress remains to be achieved.

In honor of World AIDS Day, we joined the International Social Marketing Association (iSMA) and Ogilvy Washington on Tuesday to discuss campaigns that have helped the world #RETHINKHIV and continue to move the needle in a positive direction – at individual, normative, and policy levels.

Remarks from Tom Beall, formerly with Ogilvy, and Candace Webb with the Health Resources and Services Administration underscored the significant progress that has been made and laid out a path forward through a rich history of working on AIDS and HIV social marketing campaigns.

Progress through social marketing campaigns. You don’t have to poke around on our website long to see we wholeheartedly believe – and can support through our research – that communication (and social marketing in particular) is a powerful tool in increasing knowledge, shifting attitudes and beliefs, influencing behavior, and ultimately creating positive change in the world. It was wonderful to hear examples of the crucial role research has played in the development of successful social marketing campaigns encouraging positive HIV-related behaviors, particularly in the government space. For example, Beall highlighted the importance of the following in the development and success of the America Responds to AIDS campaign:

  • Formative research
  • Audience segmentation and targeted messages
  • Message testing – and more testing – to avoid unintended consequences and maximize impact
  • Considerable investment in ongoing monitoring and evaluation of effectiveness, allowing for fine tuning and application of lessons to future phases

Progress through the people behind the campaigns. Evident throughout the event were the truly remarkable people who have fought for the progress we’ve made. You often hear about the 5 Ps of Marketing, but last night Beall shared his 3 Ps of People who made (and continue to make) big impacts through their social marketing (and other) work:

  • Passion. Not simply a professional passion, but a personal passion and commitment to do right, to do good – even at for profit organizations. People who view their work not as a job but as an opportunity to save lives and to use their professional skills and opportunities to make a difference in the world.
  • Persistence. Noted as particularly important when navigating rigorous government approval processes, success and progress in this space require people who are willing to get creative, problem-solve, and persevere in the face off challenges. One example that spoke to me in particular related to the history of early campaigns communicating about HIV and AIDS when you couldn’t talk about condoms in prevention messages. A difficult challenge to which the team responded with an ad that suggested, “Something as simple as putting socks on could save your life.” You couldn't talk about condoms, but you could talk about socks. Ever creative, ever adaptive, ever persistent.
  • Patience. A recognition that change occurs over years and decades and an ability to celebrate near-term wins while maintaining commitment to change over the long haul. I’m sure others can relate to Beall’s sentiment that: While what we did was making a difference, it was a far cry from solving the problem, the job is not done, and a huge effort continues to be needed.

I feel lucky to work with individuals who embody these 3 Ps every day – at FMG and across our partner and client organizations. There’s much work to be done, but if it’s true that those who change the world are the ones who believe they can, I’m excited to see what form progress continues to take at this group’s leadership, and I thank those like Beall and Webb who continue to make a believer out of me.

We’ll be hosting the next networking event with this group March 2, 2016 – I hope you’ll join us to be reminded why we love what we do, of the impact we’re having, and how we can learn from each other to continue improving our efforts (stay tuned for more details).

World AIDS Day

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