Rubber Match: Playing with HIV/AIDS (seriously)

By Bruce Hetrick

A visiting professor of Public Relations for the IU School of Journalism, Bruce Hetrick serves on the Spirit & Place Steering Committee.

Too few workplaces are playful. When the work involves disease and death, that’s especially so.

But even in an advertising agency marked by puns, practical jokes and a president prone to sweatpants, my most playful-ever work experience was a brainstorming session about HIV/AIDS.

The setting: the early 1990s. AIDS often meant death sentence. So the State Health Department hired our Connecticut ad agency to create a prevention/education campaign that would save lives.

After audience research and concept tests, we prescribed TV, radio, posters, fotonevellas, media relations and more.

Our message was simple: Say no to sex or yes to condoms.

Because one of our target audiences was gay men, and because many gay men frequent gay bars, we saw an opportunity to create a targeted new medium: cocktail napkins with risqué reminders about safe sex. Because bars – straight and gay – serve only adults, we didn’t have to worry about our innuendos reaching children.

We called a brainstorming session to develop concepts. A half dozen male copywriters and art directors – plus one female PR pro – came to play.

The sexual nature of the cause, the mixed company in attendance, our squeamishness about discussing sex in public, and the notion of getting paid to talk dirty – all for a good cause – was too much. The hoots and hollers echoed through our office building.

I still have a set of the winners somewhere, each white napkin featuring a simple color drawing of a condom. Examples suitable for the Spirit & Place website: “Let the good times (un)roll.” “You’re putting me on.” And my favorite: “Please let this come between us.”

(There are many more examples NOT suitable for the Spirit & Place website.)

The state distributed 600,000 napkins the first year. They worked so well that our client tried them out in straight bars the following year.

Predictably, some folks said the napkins promoted promiscuity. Newsweek columnist George Will mentioned them in a year-end recap of “only-in-America” rants. And while I hope our humor saved someone’s life, we’ll never know who or where.

What I do know is one lesson you’ll learn at the Nov. 2 – Nov. 11, 2012 Spirit & Place Festival – on the theme “play.” Even the most difficult work on the most serious subjects can sometimes benefit from a playful perspective.