- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

OAKLAND, Calif. You can't get much more explicit than the anti-AIDS advertising campaign Alameda County officials are mounting here on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

One black man lies atop another, both naked, two empty glasses and a liquor bottle beside them. An unused condom lies on the floor nearby. That's the ad campaign that now adorns small billboards, postcards, business-size plastic cards, condom packages and matchbooks.

"Been there. Done that. Get HIV tested. It could save your life," says the slogan on each of the advertising items.

The signs are being posted in areas most likely to be frequented by gay black men. The smaller items are given away in nightclubs, adult video stores, bathhouses, bars and other known gay hangouts.

The shock ads are the county health department's response to a state of emergency declared in 1998, when AIDS officially become the number one killer of African Americans ages 25 to 44 in Alameda County, bumping homicide out of that spot for the first time since the early 1960s.

The campaign is aimed primary at blacks because they are five times more likely to contract the deadly HIV virus than whites or blacks. Blacks make up just 18 percent of the county population, but account for 42 percent of its 5,400 active AIDS cases.

The ads bother at least one Alameda county supervisor, who fears that parents might have to explain the image if their children see it. "I'm not convinced it won't get out in the general public," says Scott Haggerty.

But he was outvoted when the county board approved the campaign, and there have been no other vocal complaints since the material began to appear in early March.

The ads are funded by a $300,000 grant from the state Department of Health, the same agency that pioneered graphic anti-smoking ads showing both diseased lungs and used cowboys with drooping cigarettes and downhearted expressions to suggest tobacco causes male impotence.

The county also has produced three other images for the anti-AIDS signs and handout items, all of them graphic but not as sexually explicit as the one that worries Mr. Haggerty.

Other California counties also received grants for anti-AIDS campaigns and are producing their own shock ads, but none so far are as sexual as the one created for use in Oakland and other parts of Alameda County.

One ad now in use in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco, depicts a woman with a condom in her outstretched hand saying, "If you don't have one, you don't get none. Use a condom every time."

"We know not everybody will be pleased with these ads," says John Conley, that county's public health director. "The problem is severe enough, though, that it's necessary to get the message out in as dramatic a way as we can."

Added Arnold Perkins, director of Alameda County's health department and the man who directed the explicit campaign, "This clearly shows the behavior that our most at-risk population is engaged in. We have to do something that gets their attention, and our focus groups tell us it has to be this hard-hitting, or they view like nothing more than a Cheerios ad."

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