Founded in 2007, and thus celebrating this year it’s 10th Anniversary, APCOM represents a diversity of interests working together to advocate for and prioritise the HIV issues that affect the lives of men who have sex with men (MSM) and other people of sexual diversity, gender identity and/or expression in the Asia Pacific. The organization acts as a liaison between the communities in the region and the international, regional, national and local partners who work on their behalf.
Community participation is at the core of APCOM’s work and a few years ago, as it looked to the communities it was serving, APCOM realized that a whole generation of young men was not being reached by the more common in-person models of service delivery. In a context where most young people own a smart phone, young men were now cruising online and using social media to network and meet others, as opposed to accessing sex in the more “traditional” hotspots.
Young men were not only using the virtual sphere to find community and partners, but APCOM noted that they were also accessing sexual health information, and information about sex in general, online. While the existence of a physical space where community gathers can make it easier to find people and to offer them sexual health promotion services, APCOM realized that where young men were concerned, there was a gap in services. To reach them, they too would have to go online.
In order to meet this need, APCOM launched a regional campaign using the banner TestXXX. This innovative campaign targets young men between the ages of 18 to 24 (though the content and information applies to men of all ages). Speaking to the community in its own language and in a fun, sexy and sex-positive way, the campaign encourages young MSM and other people of sexual diversity, gender identity and/or expression to take care of themselves and their partners by:
- seeking testing (“Get tested”);
- choosing from various prevention strategies (“Stay safe”);
- and seeking treatment and support services if they are diagnosed to be living with HIV (“Live positively”).
The campaign was first piloted in Bangkok (Thailand) between 2014 and 2015, using the adapted name TestBKK and the memorable slogan Suck. F*#k. Test. Repeat. Since 2016, the campaign has also been implemented in Manila (the Philippines) and Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon (Vietnam), and prepares for a forthcoming roll-out in Hong Kong and Yogyakarta (Indonesia). While materials are adapted to suit the realities and specificities of each locale, the TestXXX campaign stays true to a very creative and strategic brand.
Here are some key lessons that have been learned in the process of developing the innovative and creative TestXXX campaign, with a particular focus on the Bangkok arm (TestBKK):
At the moment, HIV testing in Thailand is only offered in person, as is the case in the many other parts of the world where home-testing is not yet available. Having to go to a physical location can create a barrier, in that not everyone can or wants to make their way to a site to receive an HIV and other STI test (whether this be from lack of time, information or resources, or fear of being judged, stigmatized or discriminated against).
However, a person’s physical presence also offers an entry point towards a broader range of services that include treatment and support for those who test positive for HIV or any other STI, and access to a range of prevention options for all.
Raising awareness is important but it’s not enough – you need to make sure that
people are accessing services.
In order to facilitate access to services, APCOM has developed collaborations with a number of clinics in Bangkok. These clinics are respected by and respectful of the LGBTQ community, while offering quality HIV and sexual health care. The organization invests much time and energy in cultivating these relationships, as a crucial element of the campaign’s success lies in making access to services easy and comfortable for young men. Receiving quality care not only inspires young men to return for subsequent testing and to take care of their own and their partners’ sexual health, but it also increases the likelihood that they will speak about these services to their friends.
APCOM’s relationships with these clinics also allows for another key element to the campaign’s success – its ability to trace the impact made on access to services. Upon receiving patients, the clinics routinely ask how individuals were referred to or heard about their services, information which is then shared with APCOM. This important feedback allows the organization to gauge the impact of the campaign and the percentage of HIV tests that may have been missed had these young men not been exposed to TestXXX.
The importance of in-person contact also applies to outreach activities, and so to their online work, APCOM adds the coordination of community events. For example, they organize an annual fair, where they invite and collaborate with several gay businesses who set up booths, organise activities, fashion shows and other “life-style” experiences, while APCOM’s clinical campaign partners offer HIV testing and sexual health information. This model not only reflects APCOM’s comprehensive approach to men’s sexual health and well-being, but it cultivates trust and interest in the campaign by highlighting the organization’s membership of and investment in the local community. Most important, the activities show sex as a normal and healthy part in everyone’s life.
Another key element to the campaign’s success has been its ability to harness the participation of influencers within the community. Realizing it had limited capacity when it came to creating a viral video, APCOM decided to seek the help of the experts, the local YouTube stars who create parodies of music videos and other entertaining capsules to capture young people’s attention.
Not only have these local internet celebrities enthusiastically responded to APCOM’s requests for assistance, but these alliances have allowed for the creation of popular and well-liked videos. The first that was produced has now garnered more than 700,000 views on YouTube. Turning to these YouTube sensations has also allowed APCOM to reach a countless number of individuals who would not have been reached otherwise, in that they may not identify themselves to be at risk or seek out sexual health information.
Inspired by the potential of online videos for health promotion and education, APCOM developed the GayOK webseries, a fictional account of the lives of young gay men who are living in Bangkok. Woven amidst the love, drama, sex and entertainment are messages that promote HIV testing and a comprehensive approach to HIV prevention and sexual health. Having recently launched its second season, GayOK has received many accolades and has been met with much enthusiasm from the community in Thailand and surrounding countries.
Another element that has been key to the success of the TestBKK campaign has been its ability to push boundaries and to keep its audience engaged. In a context where one is competing with an endless amount of messages that may be deemed more interesting or worthwhile, it’s necessary to keep things fresh and titillating.
The messaging for Suck. F*#k. Test. Repeat. was identified during a focus group with young MSM and transgender people, who raised the idea as a possible slogan. The focus group participants questioned whether the message might be a bit too risky and direct for Thai cultural norms and values, but ultimately, APCOM decided to move forward. Not only does the slogan capture the importance of HIV testing as a key element in the continuum of HIV prevention and care options, but it does so in a way that celebrates sexuality and pleasure, and that mirrors the terms that men themselves are using. While there has been a bit of resistance to the message, ultimately, APCOM’s collaborators and funders have been able to see the benefits of reaching young men in a way that appeals and speaks to them.
If it’s toned down, it’s not interesting.
APCOM’s desire to maintain a recognizable brand within its multi-media and multi-national campaign not only allows for coherence, but it helps to create and sustain trust with the individuals and communities that the organization is aiming to reach. Though new messages and information are integrated as they arise (on PrEP or the imminent arrival of HIV self-testing, for example), by sticking to the same underlying philosophy and approach, APCOM avoids diluting the message and confusing the audience. Men come to recognize the look, feel and platforms of the campaign, and they can trust that they are accessing information and services that are professional, accurate, sex-positive,respectful and are established on the basis of their issues and needs.
Behaviour change doesn’t happen overnight, you need to come up with different ways of
keeping things fresh.
APCOM’s work has generated a lot of interest on the part of the community, as well as local and international community-based organizations and groups, who find the sex-positive approach, visuals and tone of the campaign to be refreshing and innovative. APCOM has been thrilled by this interest and has taken the opportunity to share some of the lessons learned in the process of developing the campaign and carrying out the other aspects of the its work.
Representatives of APCOM offer capacity-building workshops, they present at conferences and they share a lot of process-related information through the development of reports, scoping papers and other tools that are shared on the website. While the organization is able to speak the language and meet the needs of the communities with whom it works, this is done in a spirit of collaboration and professionalism. This approach has contributed to building APCOM’s position as a well-respected leader in MSM health and innovative approaches to sexual health promotion in the Asia-Pacific region, and internationally.