A Qualitative Report on Congratulatory Campaigns and Concepts for Gay Men

Prepared by: Allie Lehmann & Robb Travers
AIDS Committee of Toronto, April 1993


    • A congratulatory campaign for gay men as currently conceived by the AIDS Committee of Toronto would not be feasible in the City of Toronto in 1993.
    • A campaign by the AIDS Committee of Toronto that recognizes and acknowledges the many contributions and gains made by gay men and gay/AIDS organizations over the last ten years, while acknowledging the tasks ahead is feasible.
    • This type of campaign should emphasize a call for government action, continued community organizing and safer sex maintenance.
      • Targeted prevention/education campaigns for gay men should continue to be a high priority for community-based AIDS organizations and other health organizations.
        • The campaign materials should be distributed through channels which gay men access such as Xtra magazine, Now magazine, HIV clinics, the 519 and other community venues, physicians' offices, and bars.
  • The mass media is the best vehicle to use to get any message across.
    • The campaign materials should address broader issues of homophobia and the stigmatization of AIDS.
      • The materials used in the campaign must be environmentally sensitive, reusable, smaller and have practical use. Images in these difficult economic times should be simple, subtle, yet powerful.

        Background and Purpose

        In honour of the ten-year anniversary of community organizing around HIV/AIDS, the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) is planning to launch a campaign for gay men during Lesbian and Gay Pride Week, 1993. The primary objective of the campaign is to congratulate gay men for their individual achievements and the gay community for its collective efforts over the last ten years in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The secondary objective is to increase awareness and maintain the profile of HIV/AIDS in the community. The goal of the campaign is enhanced self-esteem and maintenance of safer sex practices. This campaign is targeted at all self-identified gay men.

        The purpose of this focus group research was to identify the optimal concepts for a celebratory, educational campaign that would recognize the individual achievements of gay men and the collective efforts of the gay community.

        Research Objectives:

        Specific objectives of the research were:

        To obtain the following information:
        • the feasibility of such a campaign
        • reactions to three previous congratulatory campaigns
        • identify sources where gay men get information about HIV/AIDS
        • to identify new sources and advertising strategies

          A Few Notes on Methodology:

          Focus groups are a means of generating discussion and eliciting synergistic insights into particular kinds of questions. In qualitative research, generalizing from a "representative sample" of gay men in general is not possible; nor is it necessary. The purpose of a qualitative methodology such as focus groups is not to test pre-determined hypothesis, but rather to elicit participants' life experiences and perspectives. These experiences and perspectives illuminate the kinds of particular themes and rich insights that are of importance to the objectives of this study.


          A total of 22 respondents (age 19 - 59) participated in three focus group discussions at a market research facility in Toronto on April 3, 1993. Participants were recruited through advertisements in Xtra magazine and through outreach to gay bars. Respondents who work or volunteer in AIDS organizations were excluded in the initial screening process. Participants were paid an incentive of thirty dollars for their participation.


          After introduction to the moderator and focus group procedure, participants were asked general questions about health and attitudes and perceptions about 10 years of achievement for gay men in the age of AIDS (see Appendix A). Participants were also asked where they get information about HIV/AIDS and what components of campaigns they find appealing.

          Finally, participants were asked to evaluate three existing congratulatory campaigns. The three campaigns were Let's Keep It Up (AIDS Committee of Toronto - ACT), Keep It Up (Gay Men's Health Crisis - GMHC) and Congratulations - Outliving, Outlasting, Outloving (AIDS Council of New South Wales - ACON) (these campaigns are available for viewing at the ACT Public Access Centre). Reactions to the campaigns were sought in two ways: first, participants were left alone in the room for ten minutes and asked to complete pencil and paper measures (see Appendix B) on each of the three campaigns. After completing this task, the moderator returned to the room and facilitated a general discussion about their impressions of the campaigns.

          Summary of Findings and In-Depth Analysis of Recommendations:

          Recommendation #1:

          A congratulatory campaign for gay men as currently conceived by the AIDS Committee of Toronto is not feasible in the City of Toronto in 1993.

          Participants were asked how the gay community can congratulate or acknowledge the gains/successes/achievements made by gay men over the last ten years.

          "If you're going to congratulate the community it's for keeping the awareness alive...within the gay community we're aware of it everyday, we go out to a bar and cruise somebody...we're constantly aware of the side effects of our actions"

          "Although congratulations are in order, we've still got too far to go to spend money on that kind of thing. It should be spent telling people how we haven't come far enough."

          Most participants equated a congratulatory message with complacency; possibly coupled with frivolity. The combination is not appropriate for the lean nineties.

          "This congratulations for 10 years, ...... there's nothing to be congratulatory about. It's not a condemnation of ACT...it's condemnation of using funds to make an unnecessary statement."

          "We need to say...let's keep it up but let's try harder....not praise ourselves because we've managed to keep rowing against the tide in this battle. I mean there's no congratulations. We're still rowing. When we get to shore, we can congratulate ourselves then"

          "There's no cause for celebration...yet...we can't afford congratulations" (stated b an HIV positive man)

          "Before we start celebrating where we come from, I think we better pay more attention on where we're going"

          "Scarce advertising dollars shouldn't be spent on look how far we've come... it should be spent on looking at what's happening to our population and look how far we've come in the last ten years. We still don't have a cure."

          "Congratulations doesn't go with it...it's the acknowledgment"

          "The gay community has really come together"

          Clearly, these gay men felt that congratulations were premature and that a more appropriate campaign focus would be to acknowledge the gains and achievements of gay men over the last ten years.

          Recommendation #2:

          An advertising campaign that recognizes and acknowledges the gains and progress made by gay men and gay organizations over the last ten years, while acknowledging the tasks ahead, is feasible.

          "You can recognize the gay community for the work that's been done with PAW and everything else"

          The latter part of this recommendation stems from participants noting what has been achieved over the last ten years.

          "What wasn't available before and what is now available...progression of services as a focus of the campaign"

          "It's progression - we have progressed in the last ten years whereas initially we knew nothing - we as a community have learned and taught each other from the bottom up...we've seen progress in hospitals, great improvement in medical care"

          Recommendation #3:

          This type of campaign should emphasize a call for government action, continued community organizing and safer sex maintenance.

          We asked participants what successes or gains they have achieved over the last ten years. Participants noted the following successes: a significant increase in education which has led to safe sex, growth of organizations i.e. ACT, PWA, AIDS ACTION Now and Casey House responding to the AIDS crisis, increased political activity, less tolerance for patronizing behavior as well as increased solidarity within the gay community.

          "For a gay male you can just about go anywhere and find information on AIDS and how it's transmitted" "There's a lot more educational posters....if you're going to have sex use latex."

          "We've got Casey House...AIDS Action Now, PWA and ACT all these groups lobbying for more government money for funding and research....the gay community is no longer willing to hear" we'll do this for you just be nice, sit back and..." (get patted on the back).

          "There's more money coming from the gay community who is saying if you don't follow our wishes we're going to start talking" "we've realized the power we have as a group both financially and politically."

          "We've come so far but there's so much to do yet. " We must stand our ground and not be intimidated by right wing groups.

          The participants spoke of the successes of the decade with much pride. For many the politicization of the HIV/AIDS issue is a useful way to demonstrate clout - political and financial. This is a very hopeful and positive sign. Participants seem impressed with the work done by three AIDS organizations. Therefore, capitalizing on this pride in a campaign would be advantageous.

          Participants also noted the importance of continued prevention education messages.

          "...the advertising might be spend as a preventive measure than a slap on the back."

          "Nip this in the bud......There's a long road ahead of us so go for the education because there's not enough out there"

          Recommendation #4:

          Targeted prevention/education programs for gay men should continue to be a high priority for community-based AIDS organizations and other health organizations.

          HIV/AIDS clearly remains the most important health concern for gay men today. Participants were asked to go around the table and talk about what they consider an important health issues for gay men in the 1990s. Invariably, older gay men identified HIV/AIDS as the issue most important health concern for them. Of interest, is the fact that the group comprised of young gay men, mentioned safer sex as the issue of importance.

          "One big difficulty has been " trying to get the guy to wear the condom"

          "A small percentage (of the gay community) is up to date on the HIV issues"

          This may mean that avoiding HIV infection (or re-infection) is the primary concern of young gay men, while for older men, the day-to-day reality of being affected by HIV is of primary importance. For these reasons, targeted campaigns which address the diverse needs of gay men are essential.

          Recommendation #5:

          The campaign materials should be distributed through channels which gay men access such as Xtra magazine, Now magazine, HIV clinics, the 519 and other community venues, physicians' offices, and bars.

          Group participants use a variety of sources in Toronto to access information about HIV and AIDS. Typically cited were community-based organizations such as ACT and the PWA Foundation, community venues such as bars or the 519 Church Street Community Centre, or through Xtra magazine. Information was also commonly sought out at HIV clinics or physicians' offices.. Additionally, participants identified billboards at Yonge & Wellesley, murals on buildings and street banners as appropriate vehicles for campaign materials.

          Recommendation #6:

          The mass media is the best vehicle to sue to get any message across.

          Participants were asked what kinds of campaign components were particularly appealing, and where they would like to find them. We had expected answers to focus around already much used items such as buttons, posters, etc. Instead, we found that people want components of campaigns to be carried by mass media vehicles, such as the Toronto Sun, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, billboards, TTC bus shelters, and through television and radio commercials.

          "There's not enough TV or radio advertising - I've only seen one commercial with two guys in the gym"

          "I think commercials are great for campaigns. On television because everybody watches T.V.

          "Those posters should be on TTC shelters as well."

          "Banners in the city streets."

          "You know, I'll tend to read an issue now in AIDS in the Globe & Mail and the Star because I'm so surprised to find something in there that's worth reading on that subject."

          "You're not expecting to find information about AIDS or a safer sex ad in the Sun. Something like that, I would read automatically...the Sun is safe to read. Xtra is not safe to read on the bus."

          White it may not be financially possible for ACT to utilize these methods for campaign delivery, it is nevertheless useful to document its necessity for future funding proposals.

          Recommendation #7:

          The campaign materials should address broader issues of homophobia and the stigmatization of AIDS.

          The stigma attached to HIV infection was very evident in the comments recounted by group participants:

          "This girl at school said...'there's 13 girls for every guy (at Glendon College) and half the guys are gay...you can just smell the AIDS in this place'.

          "He's so white he must have AIDS" (re Michael Jackson)

          "Well you must deserve to have AIDS..."

          Positive self-esteem is directly correlated with consistency in condom use among gay men. The above comments reflect the need for campaigns that counter these negative images and acknowledge that homophobia impacts on the daily lives of gay men. Moreover, public visibility of positive images of homosexuality is crucial for enhanced self-esteem among gay men.

          "It's novel in itself to have an advertisement for what we would call the gay community. I mean, that catches my eye right away. As soon as I see something that's in print or on a poster, I read it right away."

          "I want to see them (campaign materials) in subway stations. Somewhere where everybody goes. Not just gay people."

          Participants acknowledge that gay community organizing around AIDS has in many ways made homosexuality more visible and that attitudes towards homosexuality among heterosexuals as a result may have improved.

          "I also think that the view of homosexuals in the heterosexual community has changed a bit because of AIDS and the coming together of the community and the standing up for our rights. A lot were homophobic and a lot of that has changed because the gay community had to come together and demand its rights."

          Of particular popularity with these gay men is the Red Ribbon campaign. The objective of this campaign is to raise general awareness about HIV & AIDS.

          "I like the ribbons. Like people ask you to read sometimes like what's that about and you'll tell them some information on it. They'll ask what does that mean and why you're wearing it."

          "I like the idea of just having something, one simply red ribbon, the ones that are out now that you wear, as a constant reminder that AIDS is here and we've lost a lot and we're still living. And that's good to have something like that you know."

          It is interesting to note that over the last two years, the red ribbon has been very prominent and visible on television at several high-profile entertainment award shows. It may be that this kind of visibility is important in acknowledging the significant losses endured by gay men as a result of AIDS. Moreover, the simplicity and subtlety of this symbol has made it attractive to many. Therefore, it may be important to consider capitalizing on this symbol (or others such as the pink triangle or the rainbow by incorporating it into future prevention/education campaigns for gay men.

          "The pink triangle is nice to look at. The pink triangle I think is sort of a good idea"

          "The pink triangle is important here because I know I understand the history of our community. The rainbow flag becomes a symbol for the gay community as well. So maybe those (rainbow) colours."

          Recommendation #8:

          Images in these difficult economic times should be simple, subtle, yet powerful. The materials used in the campaign must be environmentally sensitive, reusable, smaller and have practical use.

          "Whoever is putting this poster out, what a waste of money."

          "The red ribbon was a real catcher. It was inexpensive. We're no where we don't mind wearing a red ribbon and it doesn't mean we're gay. People all over wear them. And people are wearing this and describing what it's for. There is recognition there."

          In response to whether they like condom packages (such as the Let's Keep It Up! one from ACT), one participant stated:

          "Let Trojan or whatever put the message on the condom. To put it in another package like that, I mean that's environmentally stupid."

          There was however, a general feeling that condom wallets that are reusable are a good idea. The kind recommended were those that would resemble a car insurance or driver license wallet.

          Appendix A

          Moderator Outline for Focus Groups

          1. Welcome and Climate Setting : Your views are important to us. We will guide the discussion and call on all participants to obtain everyone's thoughts. There are no right or wrong answers but differing points of view. The purpose of this discussion is to have people share their views, ideas and opinions abut gay men's health. We want to find out what kind of educational health messages are appropriate for gay men.

          Moderators Names/Taping/Mirrors/Anonymity-no identifying information is the report.

          -during the discussion say your first name for the tape
          -the material is confidential and your anonymity is assured

          2. Go around the table - Give your name, what you do for fun and how long you've lived in Toronto.

          3. You will be paid on your way out.

          4. After the discussion, thank the participants for coming and contributing to health educational campaigns. The sponsoring agency is ACT. Please keep this confidential as we will be doing more testing for the rest of the day.

          General Questions

          1. What's an important health issue for you as a gay man in the nineties?

          2. We're 10 years into the AIDS epidemic....Think back over the last 10 years and talk about what kind of successes the gay community has achieved around AIDS.

          3. When you think of these successes or achievements what kind of congratulatory messages appeal to you.
          -probe for what's helpful
          -probe for what isn't helpful

          4. If you were designing a congratulatory campaign, how would you like to see these messages or materials displayed or advertised.
          -probe for posters, ads, promo items.

          5. Where do you look for material or information about AIDS and gay men?

          Specific Discussion of Campaigns

          Next we want to obtain your quick impressions of a number of campaigns. Take the next few minutes to look at three previous campaigns and fill out the color coded survey. Please do this on your own. Remember this isn't a test we want your impressions there are no right or wrong answers. After you finish this we'll continue with our discussion.

          1. Think about the messages you just saw, discuss what message works best in he campaigns you just saw?

          -what do you like?
          -what don't you like?
          -what's your view on congratulations in the face of loss?

          2. Think about the campaign pieces you just saw such as poster, ad, button etc...What do you like about each of the items.

          3. If you were designing such a campaign what would it look like?
          -symbols, words, pictures, key elements such as???

          Zero in on Specific Campaign Materials:
          • What is the message?
          • Does it speak to you?
          • What would speak to you?
          • What do you take away from this campaign?
          • Probe behaviour change reminder, enforcer.

            Appendix B

            Survey of Previous Campaign Materials:

            1. In your own words write down what the campaign is saying to you.

            2. Is the message clearly stated?

            3. Does this campaign speak to you as a gay man?

            4. Please check off how you would rate the following components of this campaign?

            condom wallet
            print ads

            Appendix C

            As in all research, extra data is collected that is not necessary for the questions being considered. This was also the case in this research. It would not be the usual practice to include discussion of those in a formal report such as this. However, we felt that they were of such importance to the overall future health of gay men, that they warrant initial discussion and future research considerations.

            Anecdotal information revealed that the quality of give-away condoms from bars was possibly suspect and that condoms provided by health-care workers are more trusted. The ACT Bar Outreach program (Providing Ongoing Safer Sex Education - POSSE) should have its volunteers identify themselves as community-health outreach workers while in bars or other venues distributing condoms. Moreover, specific follow-up evaluation concerning give-away condoms should be carried out in venues by POSSE workers.

            Another issue pertains to the use of "scare tactics" as a valuable educational approach. This was a consistent theme in all groups, but was rejected by the researchers, as conclusive empirical evidence confirms that fear and scare tactics are ineffective educational tools.

            There were also several examples of inaccurate information regarding HIV/AIDS among these participants. One participant commented about the inaccuracies of HIV testing while an HIV negative man implied that people with HIV can live almost a full life span. This latter comment suggests that HIV/AIDS may not be as critical a health issue as it is for some gay men. We note this because one's perception of the seriousness of HIV can influence one's adherence to safer sex behaviours. In short, the danger in perceptions such as these are that we run the risk of complacency which can result in "slippage" in safer sex behaviours. These comments were not challenged by the group nor refuted by the moderators.

            Another issue pertains to the overwhelming desire for participants to see HIV/AIDS issues covered by the mainstream media; i.e., the Toronto Star, Sun and the Globe & Mail. This suggests that a media strategy incorporating feature articles and coverage of issues in daily and weekly columns is a useful direction to pursue in the 1990s. One participant recommended launching the anniversary at Nathan Philips Square. Perhaps a public announcement by the Mayor would enhance the legitimacy of such a campaign.

            While analyzing the data, the researchers noted that four AIDS organizations were frequently mentioned; AIDS Action Now!, the AIDS Committee of Toronto, the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation and Casey House Hospice. Although a joint campaign from these highly recognized organizations may not be feasible, partnerships between them should be further explored.

            Finally, participants spoke of Trojan condoms on more than one occasion during the focus groups. Capitalizing on such name brand recognition, through the solicitation of company donations may be possible.

            Transcription services provided by: Kelly Azoulay

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