Salon.com Examines FDA Efforts to Tone Down AIDS Drug Ads
AIDS activists and government officials have criticized a host of "upbeat advertisements" for HIV/AIDS drugs that appear on bus shelters, billboards, subway stations and other public spaces in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami, and on April 27, the FDA ordered drug firms to change them within 90 days, Salon.com reports. In a feature news piece, the online magazine rounds-up the controversy surrounding HIV/AIDS drug ads and the debate over whether such advertising strategies are contributing to "an epidemic of unsafe sex." According to Salon.com, many of these ads feature "attractive, healthy looking models, with muscled bodies and chiseled faces that mirror the ideals of beauty often held up in gay enclaves from San Francisco to New York." Some of the ads profiled include:
- Crixivan: One Crixivan ad features three "athletic" men and one woman who have "just scaled a dramatic mountain peak, an athletic feat that many perfectly healthy people probably couldn't do."
- Combivir: A Combivir ad shows a "muscular and attractive African-American with a towel over his shoulder, hinting that he has just completed a rugged workout." The text of the ad states that the man is "'living proof' of the power of Combivir."
- Oxandrin: An ad for Oxandrin, an anti-wasting drug that helps build muscle, depicts three "healthy-looking" men, "including a muscular clone of actor Antonio Sabato Jr."
- Zerit: Activists have criticized a Zerit ad showing a "scantily clad man and a line claiming he takes the drug because his friends do."
The Not-So-Pretty Side
Critics of the ads say that they do not convey the seriousness of the disease and are contributing to an "upsurge" in HIV infection rates. Alexis Schuler, government affairs director for AIDS Action, said, "The sense that is perpetuated by these advertisements is that AIDS drugs are just another lifestyle medication, like Claritin or Rogaine or Propecia. ... [The drug ads] give the perception that you don't have to worry about it -- AIDS won't impact your life. Ultimately, that contributes to complacency about safe sex." Joel Gallant, an assistant professor of medicine and a prominent AIDS treatment expert at Johns Hopkins University, added that a number of patients with no wasting problems have come to him seeking Oxandrin "so they can look better at the beach." And Rick Loftus, a medical resident at San Francisco General Hospital, said that a patient of his was stopped by a friend who commented on his physique and said he was "going to have [his] doctor put [him] on the same medications." However, Andrew Sullivan, a conservative writer who is HIV-positive, has "ranted" about the FDA's decision on his Web site, stating that they will "restigmatiz[e] the sick and undermin[e] the self-esteem of people with HIV." Criticizing the "neo-Stalinists who run San Francisco," Sullivan wrote, "Some truly bitter activists in [San Francisco] can't bear the sight of some people actually doing well on HIV medications, thriving physically, repairing their lives and responding to ads that help keep their spirits up and their minds educated." Concerning the ads' imagery, Sullivan said, "Why would anyone want to access a drug whose ad implies it will make you look like hell?" But Gallant said that the drug ads do not depict the unpleasant side effects the drugs may cause in some patients. "The problem is that [the ads] give out a message that HIV is no big deal and that positive guys are cool -- they're buff and pretty. ... They all want to make their drugs look easy to take. They don't want the image of some guy puking his guts out in a toilet bowl" (Lindsey, Salon.com, 5/8).