Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has ordered state health officials to stop distributing condoms with suggestive Utah-themed packaging, created with federal funds as part of a new HIV awareness campaign.
The wrappers riff on various Utah memes, with labels such as “Greatest Sex on Earth,” “SL,UT,” an image of a highway sign that displays the number of miles to towns “Fillmore” and “Beaver,” and “This is the Place” over a drawing of a bed.
“It’s really just to destigmatize HIV in Utah, and get everybody talking about sexual health,” said Erin Fratto, of the Utah Department of Health’s Prevention Treatment and Care Program, in an interview on Wednesday before the governor’s action. “If the condoms are fun, relatable, sex positive — people are more apt to talk about them, which we’ve already seen.”
A statement issued Wednesday evening by the governor’s office said: “The Governor understands the importance of the Utah Department of Health conducting a campaign to educate Utahns about HIV prevention. He does not, however, approve the use of sexual innuendo as part of a taxpayer-funded campaign, and our office has asked the department to rework the campaign’s branding.”
The department then apologized for what it called the “offensive packaging” in a statement. “The designs did not go through necessary approval channels and we have asked our partners to stop distributing them immediately," it said.
“We regret the lewd nature of the branding," it continued. "We remain committed to running a campaign to help in the prevention of HIV and intend to do so in a manner that better respects taxpayer dollars, and our role as a government agency.”
The state had begun distributing the 100,000 condoms earlier this month as part of "The H is for Human” campaign for HIV awareness, which includes a new website, HIVandME.com. HIV, a precursor of AIDS, is less prevalent than it once was in Utah but is not gone; there is one case of HIV diagnosed in the state every three days, or about 120 new infections diagnosed each year, officials said.
The condoms were being distributed by Utah’s 13 local health departments and by the University of Utah, the Utah AIDS Foundation, and various community groups, Fratto said. The packaging was designed by Love Communications, under a contract funded by federal health grants.
Volunteer Michael Sanders told KUTV-Channel 2 that he had been on his way to the university to deliver condoms when he was told to stop in an email from another member of the committee distributing them. He called the governor’s office, he said, and was told the condom packaging “was an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”
The Utah designs are similar to those used in campaigns in Wyoming and Alaska. In Wyoming, a scene of Devil’s Tower was accompanied by the slogan “Protect Your Landmark;” in Alaska, a snowboarder was paired with “No freestyling.” Both states used an oil rig image alongside “Drill Safely.”
Utah’s broader awareness campaign will include billboards, commercials and social media posts promoting the new HIVandME.com website. It offers information, resources and support for those living with HIV, those at risk for HIV, or people trying to support someone living with the infection, officials said.
Jared Hafen, programming director at the Utah AIDS Foundation, said he thinks the campaign will be successful because it’s the first HIV messaging to be rolled out statewide, not just in a specific area, and because it’s targeting a more diverse population through billboards and radio ads.
And he thought the bawdy condoms would help, too. In an interview before the governor’s decision, Hafen acknowledged that people who use condoms will continue to use them, and those who don’t, may still not. But, he said, “I think it will make more people apt to look into it. It’ll catch their eye.”
He added: "I was pleasantly surprised [the state had approved the packaging]. It’s kind of about time that they are getting on board with that.”
The state consulted with the AIDS Foundation in creating the campaign, he said.
The new state website has information about local clinics, prevention methods (including PrEP or PEP medications), testing, treatment and other resources. The goal is to help Utahns better understand the prevalence of HIV and clarify myths and stereotypes.
State health officials believe the campaign and the site will save lives, Fratto said in an earlier statement.
“We can end the HIV epidemic in Utah,” Fratto said. “With improved science and medicine, we can prevent new HIV infections and ensure those living with HIV live healthy and long lives.”
The condoms were being handed out "through grassroots, at bars, social clubs, STD and HIV clinics,” Fratto said in the interview before the governor’s decision. “We’re really targeting our at-risk populations all over the state.”
Sanders told KUTV in a phone interview: "We have worked so hard to get this program and information up and running and it’s vital. ... We want to explain what HIV is today in 2020 to reduce the stigma and enhance the lives of those living with HIV here in the state of Utah. Our goal is zero infections.
Reporters Paighten Harkins and Courtney Tanner contributed to this report.