Iris House, a New York-based HIV awareness group, is using new marketing techniques to get across a message to young, black men, gay or straight, who "think they are invincible," but who in fact account for some of the highest rates of new HIV/AIDS infections in the U.S.
The campaign slogan, "Keep It 100," is an urban youth culture expression meaning "I'm keeping it honest and keeping it real." This week, it's being rolled out in New Jersey, at bus shelters in Irvington, and on the buses traveling the town's main artery, Springfield Avenue. The ads have QR codes, a barcode that when scanned by a mobile phone camera links to information on HIV prevention resources, including HIV testing locations.
Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith is a champion of the 30-day public awareness blitz, which includes posters and brochures in barbershops, beauty salons, and other local businesses. Smith said the objective is persuading young men "to practice safe sex for their own safety and inform them of their larger responsibility to others and society as a whole."
"We need to reach young African American men," said Ingrid Floyd, executive director of Iris House. "They think they are invincible. They think this doesn't impact them because they don't hear about it in the media any more. They tend to think it's a problem in Africa and not a problem in Irvington or Newark,"
For nearly 20 years, Iris House has provided HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention services to woman and families. It's expanded its message to reach young men, launching the "Keep It 100" ad campaign last year in Manhattan. The slogan sends a message that getting tested for HIV and using condoms is a way for a young man "to be honest with myself, my partner, my friends," Floyd said.
The ads are part of the Iris House i-Matter program, which throughout the year will offer HIV workshops to young Irvington men aged 18 to 24, and one-on-one counseling to teens aged 13 to 18.
Floyd hopes to reach about 200 teens and young men. "We talk about healthy behavior and healthy choices," Floyd said. "We're trying to break some of the myths and the stereotypes and reduce the stigma around HIV." Individuals who complete the program will receive a $20 gift card that can be used at Irvington businesses. They will also receive a $20 gift if they refer someone to the program.
The program is funded by a $75,000 grant from The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. Substance abuse, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases "play havoc with the lives of our young people. We believe that the campaign will grab the attention of young people in a new and effective way," said Marsha Atkind, the foundation's executive director.
As Irvington embarks on its HIV ad blitz, it is looking to match the success that Newark achieved during its "Status is Everything" campaign, which promoted HIV testing for men who have sex with men. That campaign flooded the city with posters and used YouTube, the web and social media to spread the word, said Gary Paul Wright, executive director of the city of Newark African American Office of Gay Concerns. Of 562 men tested who were having sex with men, 47 were identified as HIV positive.
Figures from the state Department of Health affirm the rise in HIV among men having sex as men, classified as MSM. Of the New Jerseyans living with AIDS in 2001, 25 percent were MSMs and 34 percent were injection drug users. In 2010, the data flipped, with 34 percent MSMs and 22 percent injection drug users, according to Wright.
"Young men who have sex with men, particularly African American YMSMs [Young Men Who Have Sex with Men], are really a major problem. Their numbers are going up in terms of HIV infection," said nurse Peter Oates, manager of healthcare services at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center, a clinic at the School of Nursing at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.
Young men are prone to risky behavior, and that is hard to change, Oates said. "They may not identify as being gay but they are having sex with men. That is what teenagers do: they experiment."
Oates said he recently treated a 17-year-old youth who was newly diagnosed with HIV, and he also had syphilis. "He was devastated that he had syphilis, but the HIV didn't faze him at all. It really, really shocked me that this young man was devastated that he had a diagnosis of syphilis but the HIV diagnosis, it was 'oh well, I thought I was going to get that.'"
Young people may see AIDS as a disease that can be treated and that you can live with, Oates said. "They didn't grow up in the era, 20, 30 years ago, when so many people were dying of AIDS. Now they consider that there is treatment out there and you don't die from it anymore."