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Sexual Health Campaign Goes Too Far?

by Anne Merritt Aug 26, 2011
“Do you like to laugh, flirt, and maybe more? And by ‘more,’ I mean, get infected with syphilis?”

Plenty of Syph‘s homepage shows a welcome video of a handsome single guy saying just that. The mock dating site lets you browse singles in your area, listed by age, sexual orientation and stage of syphilis (primary to tertiary, in case you were curious). Profile pictures include folks with raw red sores on their mouths, and tag lines like “what’s a dick sore here or there if you’re still getting laid?”

This site was launched by Alberta Health Services as part of a mass media awareness campaign. The Canadian province of Alberta has the highest rate of syphilis in the country, and the number of infections has grown steadily every year. This parody-based campaign was launched earlier this year with the aim of reaching out to a young and tech-savvy demographic. The name is a parody of the popular dating wesite, Plenty of Fish.

Will it get people talking? Sure.

Will it raise awareness of syphillis? Maybe.

Will it entice people to practice safe sex and get tested? Iffy.

The campaign has been criticized for being all gimmick, little substance. The site does give facts about the disease; that many cases are symptomless, or that syphilis is treatable with antibiotics. However, this information is woven into the douchey-on-purpose text of singles’ profiles, along with lines like “Got the clap. She was hot. It was worth it.” On a site that looks and fuctions, for all intents and purposes, like a real dating site, the only honest content is on the unassuming and easy to overlook Help/Info page.

While the campaign is attention-getting, it does a pretty sloppy job of using stereotypes to make a point. Those infected with syphilis are represented on the site as cocky, dimwitted, and eagerly promiscuous. Most profile pictures are cleavagey webcam pics or shirtless guys at the gym, with bawdy names like “Oral Laurel” and “LogJammer_o.”

Drawing a connection between syphilis and the Casual Encounters crowd only furthers the very misconception that often keeps people from getting tested; a notion that STIs only infect the slutty, the foolish, the cast of Jersey Shore. Sounds like a perfect formula for “it can’t happen to me” thinking.

The underlying message that no one will want to date you if you contract an STI only encourages stigma. Though the site does list free STI clinics in Alberta, the shame factor of the campaign isn’t going to inspire young adults to march on over.

Canadian public awareness ads have a history of using shock value. Some good examples are Homefront’s anti-domestic violence commercials, or Heath Canada’s graphic health warnings on cigarette packages. These ads are alarming, yes, but effective in how realistic they are.

A bunch of shameless 21-year-olds making duck face with syph sores on a dating site? Not so much.

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