Stigmavir disco anthem has HCPs busting a move to smash HIV biases

In 2017, Casey House, a specialty hospital in Toronto providing care to people living with and at risk of HIV, and agency Bensimon Byrne launched the #SmashStigma campaign. Its first iteration was June’s HIV+ eatery, a three-night pop-up dining experience with meals prepared by people living with HIV – itself a response to the finding that 53% of Canadians wouldn’t knowingly eat a meal prepared by someone who is HIV+.

In 2022, the campaign premiered Others, a horror film that reflected on fear’s role in encouraging stigma. Now the campaign has taken a lighter turn with a video targeting healthcare workers, set to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

The Stigmavir campaign is named after the fictitious drug that the disco-inspired video is promoting, a once-a-day pill that “cures” stigma. The video starts in an operating room and dentist’s office, where HCPs burst into song, proclaiming that they should have “trusted the science.” Thanks to Stigmavir, they realize that patients living with HIV “deserve the same care as you and me.”

The Stigmavir campaign began with numbers that may be surprising four decades into HIV. For instance, one in five patients living with HIV is denied healthcare because of stigma – which can then contribute to depression, healthcare avoidance and negative outcomes. 

“When people show up to get care at Casey House, they are significantly sicker,” noted Casey House CEO Joanne Simons. “When we talk about their reasons for not accessing healthcare, it is about stigma and discrimination and racism. We know that, unfortunately, it continues to be alive and well in our healthcare system in Canada.”

Unlike earlier iterations of #SmashStigma, the audience for the Stigmavir video is more targeted: It’s focused on healthcare workers, not the general public broadly. For Joseph Bonnici, chief creative officer for Bensimon Byrne parent company Tadiem, this required a different approach 

“Initially, we needed a sledgehammer to get this back into the public spotlight and then to start to change behavior over time,” he explained. “Now, we want to create the understanding that some of the most harmful forms of stigma actually exist within healthcare. We needed to speak directly to HCPs – the front-desk person, administrators, dentists, therapists, you name it.”

Reaching this audience required a different tone. “It’s really difficult to engage HCPs by finger-pointing,” Bonnici said. “By and large, they are doing so much good in the world, but there’s still this issue that needs to be dealt with and dealt with directly.”

In place of judgmental scolding, the campaign opted for disco moves, with actors in scrubs dancing to an updated version of the 1978 hit “I Will Survive.” Bonnici noted that Gaynor immediately embraced the effort. 

“We went for a full rewrite of every one of her lyrics, which artists rarely, rarely give,” he says. “But she saw the lyrics, knew what Casey House was about, and was incredibly supportive of it.”

Simons shares Gaynor’s enthusiasm for the video. “They nailed it so spectacularly. To have been able to secure ‘I Will Survive,’ the gay anthem of the era, was an absolutely natural and brilliant fit.

“It’s a musical and you don’t typically hear people singing ‘HIV’ and dancing to it,” she continued. “It allows us to reach healthcare workers not by criticizing them but by saying, ‘We need to learn more together. We need to learn how to do this together.’” 

The campaign also includes a digital toolkit that helps HCPs publicize that their offices are stigma-free spaces. They offer “an opportunity to remind people living with HIV that you support them,” said Lisa McDonald, communications director at Casey House. “No one living with HIV has the same experience. Only by having different people share their experiences, their circumstances and their unique perspectives on what they live with and what they would like to see are we actually getting the full story.”

Bonnici expects #SmashStigma to continue into the future. In the meantime, Simons believes the current iteration’s humor and dance beat can drive change and improved outcomes. 

“Stigmavir is not real, but HIV stigma in healthcare is, and it is impacting people on a daily basis,” she said. “We hope that every provider, every receptionist and every cleaning person at a healthcare facility examines their own bias against people living with HIV.”

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