The billboards from the AIDS Health Foundation are omnipresent around Los Angeles, advertising its initiatives that include free STD checks, HIV testing, and healthcare centers. In recent years the campaigns have become particularly great as they’ve flipped recognizable logos and capitalized on trends to get the messages out. Bernie Sanders’s familiar slogan got changed to “Feel the Burn?,” the title to last year’s N.W.A biopic became “Straight Outta Condoms,” and just last week they tapped into Pokémon Go mania by promising, “We Catch ’Em All.”
It turns out most of these billboards were designed by Jason Farmer, AHF’s 36-year-old Senior Creative Director. We spoke to Farmer about how the ideas for these billboards come together, bringing traditional advertising mediums into social media, and why he put a dachshund in a hot dog outfit to get people to check their junk.
How did you become involved with the AIDS Health Foundation and how long have you been there?
I’ve been with AHF for eleven-and-a-half years now. I graduated with an art degree from a small school in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s called the Southern Institute of Design. I got into marketing and doing advertising here and there for different places. That was when I lived in the south. I grew up in Alabama. There’s not a big industry for art or a lot of advertising and things like that there. I decided to move to LA and I worked for a real estate agency for about a year, and then I started with AHF after that. We did a lot of our advertising with outside agencies and we always had a hard time getting them to understand our message and how we wanted to get the message across to people, so we created our own internal ad agency where I designed the ads. Then we brought in our own media placement people and created our own team. It’s worked out great.
When did that transition happen?
We started doing the internal marketing stuff about seven years ago. We created our agency, which we call AHF Worldwide, and that’s where we house all of our marketing and communications in one building.
For people who aren’t familiar with them, how would you describe the type of billboards you do?
Most of the ones that we’re really known for are built around our testing message. We have other types of operations that we do—we have healthcare centers, pharmacies—and all of these benefit our AIDS and HIV patients. Ninety-six cents of every dollar we make goes back into providing care for those people through our healthcare services.
How would you describe the tone of the billboards?
We have a lot of different approaches to it. A lot of the times it can be reactionary, whether it be something about a certain STD that’s increasing. Say there’s a rise in syphilis in South Florida, that’s gonna be something we wanna advertise. Because if there’s a rise, then we need to have more people getting tested and getting treatment.
We try to stay as close to what’s big in pop culture at the moment, too. That’s really gotten us a lot of attention from more media outlets. We did one for Feel the Burn that was on The Tonight Show. We’re trying to find ways to get to different types of crowds.
We had one that got a lot of attention where we were going after Grindr and Tinder for their sites essentially being known as hookup sites. We weren’t really attacking them, it was just that culture behind it and they didn’t have any easily available information for STD testing. And they came out and pretty much said that what we were saying about the culture of hookup apps is not true and that it didn’t happen with people who use their site.
Tell me about the pop culture ones, how do they come into existence?
We just see what’s going on out there and what’s really big. Right now we just launched this campaign for a mock of Pokémon Go because that’s the biggest thing happening right now in pop culture. We wanted to jump on that. The idea there is just to latch onto something that’s very big. People are going to think, “That’s funny,” because it’s in relation to STDs, so there’s that snicker. Feel the Burn? got played a lot of different ways. Fox News was posting about it and they loved it. And then there were people from the Bernie crowd that hated it and some that loved it. So it’s all about getting that attention and getting that conversation started.
How quickly can you turn around a billboard?
I design most of them myself. We have a full creative team, but usually if we have something that I come up with that is gonna be very relevant, I’ll pose that idea to the president of the organization, Michael Weinstein, and other people within our organization. Sometimes we’ll poll online if we have time. We’ll send them out just to get people’s feedback. With our billboard companies, I don’t do the placement for that, but we do have a really good relationship with them. So for the Pokémon thing, that was an idea I came up with and had the design for—I think it was a week and a half ago, and then within less than a week they had the billboards up. We usually try to plan further ahead.
Driving around LA, you guys seem to rotate your billboards a lot. What’s the thought thinking behind always having new campaigns up and always switching them up?
It’s to keep everything fresh. We rotate out our billboards every 90 days, if not less. If we keep them up for too long they’re gonna become a part of the landscape and the message isn’t gonna be new and fresh, it’s just going to be something that people pass by because they’ve already seen it multiple times.
Do your billboards run places besides Southern California?
Yeah, we have them nationwide. We have them here, South Florida, New York City, and Chicago—pretty much every major city in the country. We’re advertising different services because we don’t offer every service in every city. In some cities we don’t have STD testing, but we’ll have HIV testing. Or we’ll have a pharmacy and we won’t have a health care center. We just have to go by what services we have in those areas.
But are the majority of billboard spaces you have in LA?
Yeah. The thing about LA is there’s just so many billboards because there’s more people who drive, and LA is one of the last places where billboard advertising is still popular.
Do you think with the rise of Instagram these billboards are getting a wider reach? Has that become a key tool to spread the message?
Totally. One of the largest populations that are contracting STDs are people between the ages of 15 and 24. We had 10 million STD cases last year within that age range. So those are obviously the people using Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and all that stuff. When we put up the Pokémon artwork, within the first day the Shade Room, a very well known page on Instagram, posted it and we had 21,000 likes and 700 or 800 comments in just a few hours. It’s very hard to get that type of advertising, especially organic advertising where people are showing that they enjoy it and they’re tagging their friends and making jokes about it.
One of my favorite billboards was the one for Syphilis Explosion that was running for a while. Can you explain what the concept for that was?
There was a big rise in syphilis when we put that out, especially in LA, but we did it in multiple cities. I have a really good relationship with our president where he’ll throw ideas at me and I’ll come up with some and that was one of them where we just had to have something showing how the numbers of syphilis are blowing up. So we had the idea of an explosion and we came up with a visual for that, and I thought it would be interesting to have the explosion being a volcano. I was playing around with the design, making it look like a Hollywood [film] billboard, like something epic and big. A lot of people had the same reaction you had, that it was their favorite billboard. And then it started getting tied to Dianetics. They thought we were going after Scientology because it kinda resembled the cover, which was not intentional.
What are your favorite ones that you’ve done over the years?
A lot of the stuff that we’ve been doing lately has been really fun. I think we’ve really been able to nail the message down in a lot of ways. One that I always bring up is the Check Your Weiner billboard. We had all kinds of media around it. It was a weiner dog, a dachshund in a hot dog bun, and it was directed to free STD checks. The reason I really liked that one was I came up with that idea because I have two dachshunds and a lot of times I have to just look at things that I see around me. STDs are kind of constantly in my mind and how to market them, so my wife and I were talking about our dogs and she said, “You need to check your weiner.” I went, “Oh, that would be hilarious.” And they say pets and tots are the things that sell in advertising.