The making of Chicago’s new PrEP awareness campaign

It has been an incredible privilege to help birth Chicago’s PrEP4Love media campaign. The collective, collaborative journey that the Chicago PrEP Working Group undertook to create this campaign was long and involved, sometimes grueling, often exhilarating and exhausting, and always intense. It’s also been one of the best professional experiences I’ve had in my entire career. Our goal is to improve awareness of, and access to, PrEP for Chicago’s most vulnerable communities—including young gay black men, black women, and transgender women of color.

While only time will tell, here are four key things I think we did right:

1. There’s no “I” in “We.” From the beginning, we conceived of the campaign as collaborative and citywide. We wanted the campaign to come out of the Chicago PrEP Working Group, a coalition of more than 150 people strong representing individuals and organizations providing PrEP clinical services, conducting PrEP research, and engaging in PrEP education and advocacy in Chicago. This meant many more cooks in the kitchen than if one organization did it all on its own—and this definitely created challenges, let’s be honest—but having a broad-based coalition buying into the idea, directly contributing to the process and the final product, has been beyond invaluable. There are many PrEP media campaigns around the country, and from what I can see, most of them are produced by the local or state health department, or from one organization. I think, for us, our unified, citywide, collaborative approach made our campaign's content and dissemination strategy much stronger than if any of the players had done something on their own. The collectively-designed content and messaging connects Chicagoans to all PrEP services that are available across the city—no clinic or program is singled out. 

2. We secured pro bono and volunteer support from a collection of sister creative agencies—Leo Burnett, Starcom, Spark, and Razorfish. These four powerhouses came together to provide creative services, media strategy and website development for the campaign under the auspices of Égalité, the LGBTQIA business resource group of Publicis Groupe. Love them. Indebted forever. These are folks who know how to sell things and have skills and experience that those of us in public health simply don’t have. You can tell by a lot of public health campaigns that we don’t always do such a good job, to be gentle about it. We often kinda suck. So we dreamed of getting the kind of expertise that major global brands spend big money on—our dreams came true, and then some. Free. Makes me misty. We’ve enjoyed the services of more than 60 professionals from four different agencies working over 1,200 hours across more than 10 months. Those 60 pros included a data science analyst, numerous copy editors of varying levels of seniority, a media traffic supervisor, various senior designers, different vice presidents, a senior VP account director, and a senior producer or two. We had the president of Égalité on the team. We had a senior presentation layer architect. Do you know what that person did for us? I can’t say I do. I have a feeling, an instinct, a vibe, but yeah, no, I couldn’t put it into words. I can say without hesitation it was fantastic. Of that I’m sure. We were enveloped by a breathtaking array of smart, insanely creative, passionate, opinionated, dogged, tireless, funny, intuitive, compassionate, and lovely people who gave us their everything. It boggles. Had we done this on our own, you can be sure there would have been no “human experience associate” on our team. 

The PrEP4Love campaign produced a number of diverse images to give its message a broad appeal. Photos courtesy of Jim Pickett

3. We used private funding! We raised the funds we needed for production and placement via a local funder—the Alphawood Foundation, and over 100 generous, visionary individuals in Chicago. These privately raised funds, without the restrictions that come with governmental and other funding streams, allowed us the space and the freedom to develop an expressive, intimate, pleasure-positive, sex-affirming message with matching visuals. What a glorious trip.

4. We made it about pleasure! This deserves an exclamation mark, too. What else is there to say? Pleasure. YAY! Finally, a public health campaign that doesn’t emphasize RISK and DANGER and WARNING. Something without a big bloated “yeah, but…” I’m proud that, as a community, Chicago rallied around pleasure-based messaging for our PrEP campaign, our sweet little baby. And I’m really proud that we embraced beauty and love and intimacy in our communities, and that we portrayed them honestly and compassionately, with real, beautiful people catching desire, and spreading tingle with their real, beautiful, gay, straight, cisgender and transgender bodies. When I first caught sight of one of the campaign ads on a train platform, I stopped and gazed, beaming like a new momma. I may have cooed. I may have let a train pass just to look at it a bit longer.

It’s our baby, and it’s the cutest, smartest, most adorable baby that has ever lived. Ever. Yes You Are.