What would likely have been a story in a single news cycle carried only in the local press became another “Utah embarrassment” carried nationwide. An HIV prevention program paid for by federal funds also hangs in the balance.
Saying he didn’t want Utah taxpayer money paying for condom packages that twist Utah landmarks and sayings into sexual innuendos, Gov. Gary Herbert pulled over 100,000 condoms, a website, and a billboard campaign aimed at HIV prevention in the state.
The thing is, Utah taxpayer money wasn’t used in the campaign, and now that the already-spent funds are being trashed, there is a possibility the state will have to return money from the federal grants that paid for them.
“The campaign started on Monday, [Jan. 13],” community activist Michael Sanders said. “First thing in the morning, I took to social media and the story ended up in The Salt Lake Tribune an hour later. An hour after that I got an email from [the Utah Department of Health] to stop distributing the condoms until further notice.”
Sanders had hit many Salt Lake bars, the Utah Pride Center and coffee shops and had volunteers headed up to places as far as Logan before getting the email.
The campaign was a hit. Many places were already out of the first stash before the governor had them pulled. With such twists on the Utah vernacular as “Uintah Sex?” referencing the county in eastern Utah, “Greatest Sex on Earth” mimicking a phrase on Utah license plates, and “This is the Place” featuring a graphic of a bed, people began collecting them and talking about them.
The purpose of the campaign was to drive people to the website developed for the campaign. It included places to get tested, discussions on options like PrEP and U=U — Undetectable = Untransmitable, etc.
“It’s not about the condoms,” Sanders said. “The concept was to create catchy phrases that were cute, would make people giggle, but then notice the website and go and get the information we are really trying to get to people. They were just a marketing tool. It could have been condoms, or bar cards, or whatever. The key was they needed to be printed, small enough to fit into a pocket, and engaging enough to begin conversations about HIV. That’s how you end the virus, by people talking about HIV.”
The committee that created the campaign included healthcare professionals, community activists, marketers from Love Communications, and staff of the Utah State Department of Health. They had met for a year and decided to emulate campaigns from Alaska and Wyoming — both also conservative states.
Communications Director fired?
The campaign went through an approval process through “all the proper channels,” Sanders said, which meant getting approval from Tom Hudachko, director of communications at the Utah Department of Health.
Calls on Friday, Jan. 17 to Hudachko’s direct line were answered with a message that he was no longer reachable at that number. By Monday, the recording was changed to say he was merely away from his phone.
The governor’s office told QSaltLake that Hudachko was not fired, but declined further comment on “a personnel matter.” The health department also declined to comment on Hudachko’s employment status.
Who paid for the Condoms?
The campaign was paid for by the Health Resources and Services Administration, which administers Ryan White grants aimed at stopping the spread of HIV. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control also gave the Utah health department a grant with the same aim. The state awarded the campaign to Love Communications, a marketing company that has worked closely with the Utah AIDS Foundation and LGBTQ organizations.
“There is no funding for HIV in Utah — zero,” said Sanders. “We get money from the CDC and Ryan White for HIV — both of which stipulate that there must be community participation in any campaign funded by them.”
The condoms and their packaging, the website, and billboards were purchased by Love Communications through the campaign allowance.
No one at the health department, the governor’s office or the Ryan White grant office could say if the state will have to pay back the grant monies already spent on the condoms and packaging if they are destroyed.
Future of the campaign
At the writing of this story, the website — HIVandMe.com — still read merely “Temporarily offline.” Billboards are no longer running on Utah’s freeways.
Sanders hopes that the campaign can easily be retooled and put back on track.
In the meantime, the brouhaha created by the governor definitely has people discussing HIV prevention, though without the guidance of the material developed by experts in the field.