This obscene awareness campaign may not be a disaster after all

Updated: Oct 4

A health awareness campaign from New Zealand is getting a lot of attention. Unfortunately, it’s not for the right reason.

In July 2022, Dr. Ayesha Verrall, the country’s associate health minister, launched the “Stick it to Hep C” campaign, with the goal of making New Zealanders aware of how easy it is to get tested for hepatitis C, as well as the fact that the condition is treatable and, most often, curable.

The mission was an important one. New Zealand is among the 25 countries with the highest hepatitis C mortality rates. It’s estimated that as many as 45,000 New Zealanders may have hepatitis C, which in some cases is asymptomatic.

Testing and a cure have existed for a long time, but clearly not everyone is aware of this. And so, Verrall and her team decided to launch an awareness campaign that would be hard to ignore.

TV, print, and periodical ads show smiling New Zealanders of all sorts giving a middle finger to what might seem other people or even the viewer, but is actually intended to be hepatitis C.

It’s easy to understand why the “Stick it to Hep C” campaign seemed like a good idea. It uses shock value to get people’s attention - and the double meaning of “stick it” in this case is admittedly quite clever; in addition to being an insult, it describes how Hep C testing is done - by quickly sticking a small needle into a patient’s finger to get a blood sample.

But the campaign was met with shock and outrage by many. For one thing, no matter the intent, many people still find the middle finger gesture obscene.

Another issue is that, regardless of what the average adult might think of the campaign, most people don’t feel comfortable with their children seeing signs and TV ads with people giving the middle finger.

The awareness campaign seems to have turned into an ad gaffe, even being covered in major international publications. At the end of September, it was announced that the ads would be pulled where possible, and replaced with a less offensive gesture, the “thumbs up”.

(That said, you can still see the original ads in places like YouTube and on the campaign’s official website.)

It seems like the “Stick it to Hep C” awareness campaign will be a new entry on many a “fail” list.

…But did it really fail?

A number of New Zealanders have spoken out in comment sections on articles about the campaign to say that not everyone in the country feels insulted by it. An ongoing, online New Zealand Herald survey attests to this, showing, as of this writing, that 65% of readers don’t find the ads offensive.

You could also argue that there are other ad and awareness campaigns that have used shock value to make a point.

But maybe the biggest argument in the “Stick it to Hep C” campaign’s favor is this: As their name suggests, the goal of awareness campaigns is to generate awareness. Although this is ideally created through positive means, it’s hard to argue that the “Stick it to Hep C” campaign got noticed!

And not only did it catch people’s attention in New Zealand; it also made international headlines, bringing awareness of Hep C testing and treatment to even more people than the campaign’s creators expected.

Although it could have been done in a less offensive way, raising awareness and potentially saving lives is something none of us would ever think of giving the finger to.





Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg


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