HIV/Aids Testing Still Incredibly Important

aidsNo matter what your position may be on private testing venus public health strategies – and the debate is far from resolved – to enter the home HIV testing market is to be involved in controversy from the very start. But while Johnson & Johnson’s Direct Access Diagnostics division and Home Access Health Corporation both placed ads in the October 17, 1996, issue of Rolling Stone, only one company created a new controversy of its own, by exposing its ‘little prick.’

Let’s look at the Confide ad first. A large, red, lowercase i introduces the headline, placed next to a small photo of an attractive young man with a deeply thoughtful expression: ‘i think some things are private. An HIV test is one of them.” Anonymity – presumably “i” will be the only person to know that I’ve been tested, outside the “professional and caring” counselor who discusses my result, and knows me only by the number on my test card – is asserted by the repeated red i set within a series of related concepts: HIV, simple, precise, anonymity, counseling, and, finally, Confide. Drawings outlining the test steps appear in boxes at right in black, white, and red – now associated with blood, which is seen dropping from a finger onto the clearly marked test card. The ad is simple and sober. Not that interesting to look at, but entirely serious.

Now look at the Home Access Health ad – the photo and headline seem even more outrageous. Richard A. Quattrochi, company president, told The New York Times that the ad was “designed to be provocative and to get heterosexual men who think they are not at risk for H.I.V. to start thinking about it.” Provocative it is, and I’m sure it got the attention of a lot of heterosexual men. But, geez, you’d think they’d have given some thought to the other people it might provoke, and what it might say to them, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

The “babe” photo is really the least of it. Pictures of half-undressed and wholly-willing lovelies with lips invitingly parted have been deconstructed so many times, why do it again? The significant absence of the subject of address – it’s not the male consumer targeted by the ad who’s pictured, but the object of his desire – is also so common it’s almost beyond discussion. We’ve seen it so many times before – guys, buy this beer/cologne/deodorant and get the girl – that the sexism barely registers. Besides, the image isn’t all that different from the pictures of pop stars found in Roiling Stone’s editorial pages. Then again, using sex to sell a test that determines whether someone has contracted a virus that’s often transmitted during sex, and then subtly implying in the copy that the user shouldn’t worry because he’ll probably test negative, and he can use that fact to attract women for more sex, is a little bit creepy, not to mention misleading and even cynical.

I realize that it must be difficult to market an HIV/test. The product is wrapped in a lot of anxiety, with no guarantee that its use will alleviate worry. In fact, the opposite might occur. The Confide ad at least acknowledges the possibility of a positive result by promising counseling services. Home Access Health, meanwhile, makes jokes about your ‘little prick’ and reminds us, ‘You know what they say about a guy with big hands.’ (“It’s easier for him to pick up the phone and dial 1-800-HIV-TEST.”).

Why do women find a little prick attractive? The copy urges, “If you’ve got one, show it to her. That little puncture mark on your finger means you’ve taken an HIV test, and nothing arouses a woman quite like knowing you’re responsible.” (Not that you have to worry about arousing her; she looks pretty eager, already stripped down to her teddy.) None of these double entendres is particularly funny; rather, they function, as jokes often do, to control anxiety. These jokes displace anxiety about the possible presence of the virus to anxiety about anatomical endowment, which is in itself probably a displacement of anxiety about issues of intimacy and dealing with women in general. The last paragraph of the text reinforces this idea, assuring the consumer, “Most importantly, you can ease your worries and clear up any nagging questions. And if the woman in your life is having any doubts – don’t worry. That little prick is sure to satisfy her.” “Nagging” is a stereotypically female activity, and it’s “the woman in your life” who’s pushing you to take the test, more concerned with her own health than yours. (Selfish bitch!)

Figures 1 and 2 also pump up the anxiety. They can’t be called diagrams – they’re too small to read and don’t make sense unless you already know the Home Access Health test involves lancing a fingertip and squeezing a large drop of blood onto a test card to send to the company. Drawn by Jonathon Rosen, they, like the photo of the woman, fit seamlessly into the editorial content of the magazine: Rosen regularly works for Rolling Stone. His style, though, is not exactly clinical; he’s best known for an eerie edginess (see “Creatures of the Millennium,” PRINT, May/June 1996). Outlined in blood red, these hands recall a pair of praying hands, fiddled with worms and placed against a red background, that he drew for an article about musicians with AIDS.

The color red sends us back to the photo of the woman. No matter how many times I look at the picture, I can never answer the question: Where the hell is she? And who paints their walls red? Maybe the background is meant to make her look a bit sleazy, maybe it’s supposed to suggest excitement (arousal). In any case, it’s not terribly calming or reassuring – but who needs to be reassured? Not you; you’re probably negative.

The “Little Prick” ad, and another from the same campaign that reads, “Once women waited to hear three little words. Now it’s just two. I’m negative,” were criticized by gay activist and AIDS organizations such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis as naive, trivializing of serious issues, and misleading in that they presume a negative result. The “I’m negative” ad, unlike “Little Prick,” mentions that Home Access Health counselors are available for advice and referrals to health services. Nevertheless, the image, use of type, and copy emphasize that a negative result is a foregone conclusion. “I’m negative” connects the man’s lips with the woman’s ear in a way that prefigures more intimate physical contact, and she doesn’t seem to be waiting too impatiently to hear those two little words: Though he’s still got his shirt on, she, like the woman in “Little Prick,” is showing a lot of skin.

Given that most straight white men who read these ads would likely test negative, what’s the problem in assuming a negative result, and selling the testing system with the promise of more sex? If safer-sex educators recommend images and copy tailored to a specific audience as the best way to get a message across, what’s wrong with speaking to the majority, and grabbing their attention with cleavage?

Advertisements don’t only sell products, they help to shape communities and naturalize opinions. Judith Williamson explains this ideological effect in Decoding Advertisements (Marion Boyars, 1978), whereby ads construct a situation in which “you do not simply buy the product in order to become part of the group it represents; you must feel that you already, naturally, belong to that group and therefore you will buy it.” The appeal to this feeling of heterosexual male “alreadyness” – already negative – makes it easier to sell the product (if you were more concerned with getting treatment than calming your girlfriend’s fears, you might be more likely to see a doctor than take a home test), and reinforces the idea that to be HIV-infected or gay is to be unnatural and punished for it. The inability of the “Little Prick” text to acknowledge the possibility of a positive result makes being HIV-positive seem shameful, because it is unmentionable. The absence of any reference to safer sex also implies that a negative result is a license to ignore condoms and other protective measures.

After all the controversy, you won’t find “Little Prick” in magazines anymore, but Home Access Health still runs an ad from the campaign, this one depicting a muscular, shorts-clad white man who holds a basketball and sits in a modified “Thinker” pose. Shades of blue-purple link the background and Rosen illustrations this time. Though the copy employs cheesy double entendres and is far from watertight in its address (“The possibility of contracting HIV is definitely more troubling than whether or not you’ll ‘score'”: but an test won’t prevent you from contracting HIV, nor worrying about contracting it in the future), the tone is decidedly less divisive than “Little Prick,” remaining quiet about sexual preference and offering assistance in the event of a positive result.

Print ads for home HIV-testing systems are not ads for safer sex, nor are they educational materials about HIV/AIDS, sexual identity, and feminist theory. Nor should they be. But they are places where consumers look for cues as to how to think about these complicated issues. Home Access Health now realizes this. Given that we’re likely to see more ads for these types of products, the lessons of this case are still relevant.

  • Lara M:

    I remember my good friend who suffered from HIV because of her husband who was working abroad. She felt like she was really betrayed. She wanted to die but later on fought for her life for the sake of her children.

  • Phil Michaels:

    I talked to my wife and assured her that even if I am working from afar, I would never commit anything that can ruin out relationship. I asked that she keep her faithfulness in the same manner. I am just thankful that none of us is suspecting the other is playing around. This eradicates chances of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases.

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