case study:

HIV Sure

Strike the Right Tone: How to Effectively Reach A Community


In 2016, a client asked Zebra to gain feedback from members of one of their community partners regarding the evolution of their “Sure” campaign umbrella. The goal of these sex-positive campaigns is to reach all New Yorkers and encourage them to choose their preferred tools to prevent HIV and other STIs, regardless of their HIV status.

We conducted a detailed review of the “Play Sure” campaign to find areas of improvement while helping to inform and shape upcoming HIV prevention campaigns.

Our Findings

Participants applauded the clients efforts to portray a variety of LGBT experienced, and felt it showed how far we’ve come in terms of open discussion of LGBT issues. We found that “Stay Sure” works as a powerful umbrella for various options of prevention, going beyond the clinical aspects and into more emotional territory.

However, there were many issues that could affect the campaign’s ability to reach the target audience. Participants felt that the campaign defined diversity too narrowly: models were too uniformly attractive and not representative of the grittier reality many members of the community would recognize.

Participants wanted a campaign that was “less cookie-cutter” and showed less-polished models of all races, sizes, ages, and genders. One ad, in particular, was problematic: while the other ads showed couples, the transgender person stood alone in her ad. Participants felt this encouraged the stereotype that trans people need to fend for themselves.

Some found the tone of the campaign too patriarchal, likely to make people feel shame for their choices. Suggesting that people should take PrEP, seek HIV treatment, and use condoms may make those who can only do one or two things feel like they’re failing. Participants instead wanted to frame HIV prevention as a choice: spell out the options and make it clear prevention looks different for each person


Zebra conducted a 90-minute focus group . Once the group was concluded, Zebra provided the client with a detailed report of the findings.

This study illustrated the importance of seeking insight and guidance from community leaders in order to strike the right tone and prevent alienating the target audience. The valuable feedback gathered from the study was used to redirect a campaign that would not have fully resonated.

Many of the findings and recommendations from this study have not just influenced “Play Sure,” but can also be seen in later campaigns

We suggested creating specific campaigns targeting Black and Latinx women, who are considered unofficial community leaders. Since then, the client has launched campaigns promoting HIV prevention medication among women and among Latinx people.

We found that a compelling campaign would need to be a truer, more honest representation: showing real people with real bodies in real settings, offering testimonials about how they prevent HIV. This approach can be seen in later campaigns that highlight real experiences, such as the Positive Series for the U=U campaign.

We recommended moving forward with an empowering and positive message that connects the idea of staying “safe” with sex as something to enjoy, not fear. The Be HIV Free Campaign emphasizes this sense of freedom.

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