case study:

HIV Sure

Strike the Right Tone: How to Effectively Reach A Community


In 2016, a client asked Zebra Strategies to gather 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.

Our Approach

Zebra Strategies conducted a 90-minute focus group and discovered participants applauded the client’s efforts to portray a variety of LGBT experiences in their campaigns. However, they wanted a campaign that was “less cookie-cutter” and showed 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 participants also found the tone to likely 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.



The valuable feedback gathered from our study helped redirect a campaign that would have potentially alienated their target audience. 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. We also suggested creating specific campaigns targeting Black and Latinx women, who are considered unofficial community leaders, as well as showing real people with real bodies in real settings, offering testimonials about how they prevent HIV. Many of the findings and recommendations from this study have not just influenced “Play Sure,” but can also be seen in later campaigns, such as the Positive Series for the U=U campaign and the The Be HIV Free campaign.

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