It’s called Sperm Positive, and it’s the worlds very first HIV Positive donation bank. Despite expectations, with current medication HIV cannot be passed down genetically. Courtney Devereux sat down with the minds behind the Sperm Positive awareness campaign Gary Steele, Damon Stapleton and Danica Paki of DDB Group to talk about creating an idea that involves the not-so-small task of removing decades of stigma and helping create life in the process.
It’s a strong message fitting in 80 seconds, ending with the important hero line: “Despite what people think, I can’t pass on HIV.” The clip, created by DDB Group alongside the New Zealand Aids Foundation, Body Positive and Positive Women Inc, is heralding in the worlds very first HIV Positive sperm bank, Sperm Positive. Normal donation centres have a two-year waiting list, and with modern treatments, those effected with HIV can live long healthy lives, while also having zero risks of passing the virus onto the child.
For the DDB creatives involved with the launch, it wasn’t just about promoting this new donation centre. It was about battling decades worth of stigma and government policies that place restrictions around those living with HIV. Within 48 hours from the launch, the idea sparked mass controversy here and internationally, generating over 88.5 million impressions on social media within two days.
For Gary Steele, executive creative director at DDB, creating the conversation and shifting knowledge was the first port of call with the launch.
“It all came down to expanding the understanding which there is a huge lack of. Lack of education is just ignorance, and ignorance leads to stigma and there’s a lot of stigma around it… This a great campaign just to get people talking again, and educate them that HIV, which everyone assumes is a death sentence, isn’t anymore.”
“People aren’t talking about the fact that the medical advancements have come so far but the education has not kept up with the process. People don’t understand that when you are HIV positive, you can lead a long, normal, healthy life.”
Danica Paki, business lead at Tribal, said the whole point behind their task was to help address the stigma for those living with HIV. Working with the New Zealand Aids Foundation, Positive Women and Body Positive to help deliver the message clearly and respectfully.
“The Zealand Aids Foundation has been a client of ours for over a year now and we’ve done a bunch of great work with them. The brief came around due to the ignorance and the stigma that still exists in society. For them, it was about coming up with a concept that could address that. The challenge for them as an organisation was that although they’re used to communicating within their community, this was about coming up with content that could hit every day New Zealanders that still held that stigma.”
Mickey Power from the New Zealand Aids Foundation commented that the Sperm Positive bank was created for a wider need of support within the HIV Positive community.
“We all recognised the need to support our communities by seriously tackling the stigma that those living with HIV experience each and every day. Each of the three donors is a person living with HIV who has a consistently undetectable viral load, which means they cannot transmit the virus to others.”
Paki says she was aware that as an agency, and as individuals not living with HIV, they were not the best positioned to understand the impact stigma has, so constant collaboration ensured the finial message was delivered respectfully, clearly, and with a common goal of education in mind.
“It was a careful process to make sure we got everything right. We engaged people from within the community living with HIV to make sure that we had considered their points of view and made sure everything was well thought through. We had to make sure the messaging was right.”
Paki says the last frame of the clip that shows the message of the inability to pass HIV onto children, was chosen for its weight against the traditional argument that HIV is genetically transferred.
“Having the hero image speak directly against the stigma was important. There was such emotion behind what the donors were saying, all the lovely things that parents, fathers wanted to pass on to kids. In that scenario the message was about with modern science, HIV is not something that you can pass on. So, it was really important that was the last message.”
The launch tied into Worlds Aids Day on December 1, Steele says this was planned as it was important for the conversation to be had at the right time, the hard part was getting such a strong message to cut through the noise of other awareness campaigns.
“When we look at important messages, the main issue is how do you reach people?
People don’t talk about it anymore. It’s just something that’s fallen off the radar. So now this is bringing it back onto the radar. Get everyone talking about the stigma, creating conversation, whether it’s right or wrong, these people are talking about it.”
And talk about it they did. Within 48 hours the launch had made international headlines from across 25 countries including the US, Mexico, France, and even Scotland. With a large number of people voicing their support, and a louder amount of right-winged personnel voicing their displeasure in the move.
Led by Mango Communications, media relations to date has resulted in more than 230 pieces of international media coverage. The story was picked up by the likes of the Huffington Post, The Telegraph, CNN, France 24, BBC News, TicToc Bloomberg and the Daily Mail among others. With the majority of the feedback being supportive of the move and praising New Zealand for its progressive nature.
Since the launch went live, 13 donors have come forward, and 9 women, women without HIV, have applied to receive the donations.
“That there is the interesting part,” says Steele. “That these women living without HIV are registering their interest to be a recipient. There is a two-year waiting list in normal donation banks in New Zealand if we can help that, we can help give the gift of a child.”
Yet creating life and celebrating advancements in technology is a step too far for the more close-minded crowds. Damon Stapleton, regional chief creative officer at DDB draws comparisons to some of the negative comments they have received since the launch and the negative comments that were popular decades ago.
“If you look at some of the comments people were saying 30 years ago versus now, they’re pretty much the same. So in terms of the way people perceive HIV, that hasn’t changed in 30 years. Although we all think we’re very modern and liberal, when it comes down to it we’ve got very entrenched ideas.”
“Stigma stems from a lack of understanding,” continued Stapleton. “We knew we needed to be bold in our idea if we were to challenge ingrained misunderstanding surrounding HIV. When most people think of HIV, they think of a death sentence; we wanted to confront that stigma by focusing on life.”
Steele agrees that the type of negativity they have had towards this breakthrough was expected, yet didn’t make it any less disappointing.
“What we’re noticing on the tracking of our social media is a lot of right-wing people getting very angry. Some of the comments are unbelievable, I can’t believe someone types that out, and decides it’s a good idea to post it… If you rewind 30 years there were more negative comments because people didn’t understand, and now you fast forward 30 years in time and there’s still that perception and stigma, so it hasn’t changed.”
Yet Steele says the most important thing was the chance to get people to talk about it in any manner and in doing so, hopefully spurring some people to educate themselves further.
“We’re getting a lot of people hating on us,” says Steele. “But that means they’re still talking about it. Which means if one or two people read further and do the educational part and go, oh, there is treatment. Even if we convinced two or three people then we’ve done our job. But I think the great thing with this is we’re getting donors coming forward, we’re getting recipients coming forward even with 48 hours of the launch.”
Paki says the response to the campaign has been amazingly positive, with the best results being real donors and women coming forward ready to start the process of creating life, while also working to create inclusion in a usually homosexual-focused conversation.
“It was also an important part of the brief that the spotlight is taken away from the homosexual community and we were telling the female side of it as well. The positive for us is the results that have come in and the numbers that we’ve received in terms of how it’s impacted people’s lives and so on.”
Steele admits that is was a bold yet necessary move, yet the goal to alter how HIV Positive people were perceived by society and governments needed a new, more hopeful conversation.
“So hopefully this idea puts pressure on others and to open their minds, change the rules and maybe start opening the sperm banks a bit more… We knew what this was going to do. We know the stigma is always going to be there, we just had to try and change it as much as we could in our position. We knew it was going to cause conversation, but I don’t think we expected it to be as explosive as this.”
“I think it’s quite sad that we have to do this at the end of the day,” says Steele. “It would be great if it just didn’t even need to be done. But we have to, we have to try to get the message out there.”
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