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Normalising Conversations About Safe Sex in Boston

Normalising Conversations About Safe Sex in Boston

‘Safe Is Sexy Boston’ is a campaign from the Boston Public Health Commission and the New York based digital production company the STUDIO NYC that normalises safe sex discussions for an expansive range of people, from a diverse gamut of backgrounds, gender identities, relationship styles and more.

Following the spirit of the CDC’s ‘TALK. TEST. TREAT.’ campaign, the 80+ visual assets being used across social and OOH employ colourful designs and a representative cast of characters. The visuals encourage open communication and regular sexual health testing by driving traffic to a newly developed microsite with clinic resources for the local area.

“Unapologetically sex-positive” and inclusive, the campaign launched ahead of Pride with particular emphasis on the LGBTQIA+ community, empowering sexual responsibility and framing it as a significant act of love for yourself, your partner(s) and your city. 

To dive deeper into the making of this campaign, LBB’s Ben Conway spoke to Mary Nittolo, founder and chief creative officer at the STUDIO, and the company’s creative director, Michael Ocasio, and head of production, Eric Schutzbank, as well as Teakia Brown, the division director for education and community engagement at the Boston Public Health Commission.

LBB> How involved was the Boston Public Health commision in this campaign? What research and community conversations helped build out the creative?  

Mary> I have to give congratulations to the Boston Public Health team for their fearless approach in letting us run with the ‘Safe is Sexy’ campaign. By bringing the vital conversations about STIs and testing into the open – on buses, subways, with posters and dynamic digital displays – and in ads on dating and social apps, the work is destigmatising these crucial topics ensuring these essential health topics are seen and heard and empowering the community to embrace health and safety with open arms. I think they need to be recognised for making Boston a leader in public health advocacy. 

BPHC was involved every step of the way, from initial creative conception all the way through media planning, strategy and implementation. It was a true collaboration in the sense that we bounced ideas off of them and developed the campaign in lock step. They encouraged us to put our most ambitious and outrageous foot forward.

We were inspired by the visual framework of dating and cruising apps – the profile picture. What if a dating profile could speak to you directly about sex? What would it say? We landed on depicting literal conversations, ranging from risqué to playful to plain-spoken, around sexual health practices – with emphasis on the importance of getting tested.

Michael> It was vital the campaign be unapologetically sex-positive, inclusive, and ‘real’ about dating (and hooking up) in 2024. So we used the framework of dating and hook-up app chatting to exemplify how real-world conversations around safer sex can play out without killing the mood.

LBB> How did you ensure the messaging felt authentic and specific to different groups, with a wide range of representation?

Mary> It was important to have a range of voices working on the campaign. We also met with groups like Boston Pride for the People and the Mayor’s Office for LGBTQIA+ Advancement, who provided feedback on the campaign elements.

LBB> The print and web design work is so vibrant and colourful, and your cast of characters represent different genders, relationship types and more – what was the process behind the visuals?

Eric> BPHC had certain target demographics they hoped to reach, and so we set out to create characters that felt real and approachable within a spectrum of different genders and relationship types, including open relationships and mixed-status HIV pairings (U=U), as well as body shapes and skin tones. It was important that we make people feel seen; to celebrate the diversity within the LBGTQIA+ community and all of Boston. 

We also wanted to show that being sexually responsible doesn’t mean you’re a prude or a downer. It’s an act of self-love and love for your city, and your community. We wanted to appeal to everyone – from folks looking for a hookup, to people looking for love, or just wanting to sleep with the person they’re seeing.

Given the Pride push, we wanted a colourful, celebratory palette, but we balanced that out with muted pastels so it didn’t feel overly childish; it lended a degree of sophistication. Michael Ocasio took the lead on the design and execution of the campaign.

LBB> The campaign involves lots of different slogans – what were the driving philosophies behind the taglines? Do you have a favourite? 

Mary> The Driving philosophy was guided by the ethos of BE REAL, BE FUN, and SPEAK PLAINLY – the conversations had to feel real.

Teakia> My favourite is Jada, the middle-aged Black woman. Her quote, ‘I’m an open book about my sexual past and I’m always safe’ illustrates some of the many messages we are trying to communicate. Jada is confident in her sexual expression and prioritises her health. And she wants to communicate this clearly to her partners.

LBB> Were there challenges in balancing the ‘sexual responsibility’ information with the more celebratory, sex-positive aspect of the campaign? How did you combine the empowerment and love with the more serious conversations?

Mary and Eric> In the spirit of the CDC’s ‘TALK. TEST. TREAT.’ campaign, we’re normalising conversations about safe sex. The message – whether you’re looking for love or a fun hook-up – is to communicate openly with your partner(s) and get tested regularly. We’re celebrating the joy and fun of sex while empowering our community to make smart choices that keep everyone healthy.

We focused on campaign language that empowers, encourages, and educates on sexual health and where to get tested in the Boston area. And also fun! Talking about your sex health shouldn’t be a buzzkill. We needed to allude to the joy and fun of sex, and to alert our audience that we are not trying to stigmatise any of these activities. 

The language and visuals also required a certain degree of provocativeness to attract attention, while not riling up the OOH and social censors. It wasn’t without challenges; there is still lots of work to be done around normalising these conversations. 

For social specifically, we created dialogue-driven pieces where two characters converse. This enabled us both to expand on the character personalities and broaden the discussion topics to disclosing HIV status, and preventative measures like condom use and PreP.

LBB> Strategy and media-wise, where is this campaign designed to show up in Boston? Which locations and people are being targeted?

Eric> Our campaign is all about sex positive experiences and making responsible choices that make those experiences safer. By driving traffic to a newly developed microsite with comprehensive clinic resources in the Boston area, we’re making it easier than ever for people to make safer sex decisions. 

The digital campaign, including Meta, Snap, and TikTok, launched in May and will last through mid-July. BPHC is running the content organically on their channels as well.

OOH, including digital live boards and subway/bus prints, started in late May. We’re targeting transit areas that correspond with some of the city’s largest Pride events. 

The prints were also created in several languages, including Spanish, Haitian and Cape Verdean Creole, Chinese, and Vietnamese, and are running along routes that service those communities. We worked closely with BPHC and Eriksen Translations to make sure the translations were accurate and culturally appropriate, given the nuance of messaging for different populations. 

Custom ads are also appearing on hook-up apps like Grindr, Her, Jack’d and Scruff, where we were able to get a little raunchier and targeted to specific demographics. In the end, we made about 80 assets for the campaign across OOH, print, and digital.

LBB> How will this platform be developed going forward?

Teakia> The next step for us is to continue to widen the conversation about safer sex practices while promoting testing and treatment throughout our city. We are committed to telling the stories of our residents by communicating with them in ways that resonate across platforms and mediums.

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