SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert has asked the Utah Department of Health to stop distributing condoms containing potentially offensive slogans.
“The designs did not go through necessary approval channels and we have asked our partners to stop distributing them immediately,” a statement issued Thursday from the health department said.
“We regret the lewd nature of the branding.”
The condom packaging, which plays on several Utah tourism marketing themes, such as “Greatest sex on earth” with a picture of a skier, “This is the place” with a picture of a bed, and “Uintah sex?” are part of a campaign that launched Tuesday to promote HIV awareness in Utah.
“These are condoms. These are used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. This is not candy we’re handing out in grade schools,” said Michael Sanders, a member of the Utah HIV planning committee that devised the messaging for the new campaign.
He said the designs were intended to be “fun, double-entendres ... Utah making fun of itself a bit.”
The health department said the condoms “are an element of a larger campaign and are designed to resonate with target audiences and spark conversation about HIV.”
Sanders said the campaign is meant to be progressive, “to get people to pick them up.”
“The condoms were designed to spark a conversation, to be intentionally fun, funny, and to direct people to the website to get more information,” he said.
The governor’s office released a statement on Wednesday saying, “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 campaign was years in the making and was not funded with any state money, but through $353,000 in federal health grants from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Integrated HIV Surveillance and Protection Program for Health Departments, and the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Ryan White CARE Act Title II.
The state-run website, HIVandMe.com, which contains educational materials, other information, as well as support and resources for people living with HIV, was “temporarily offline” Thursday afternoon.
The condom packaging ideas were designed with a federal health grant by Love Communications and were being distributed at Utah’s 13 local health departments, at the University of Utah, the Utah AIDS Foundation and at other community locations and LGBTQ organizations, according to the health department, which said it had asked its partners to stop distribution while the campaign is re-worked.
A series of advertisements, including on billboards and television, centered around the theme, “The H is for Human,” were also pulled Thursday — though the condoms were the only marketing items containing potentially suggestive materials.
“It’s all about breaking down barriers and exposing people to something they either don’t know about or don’t want to know about,” Erin Fratto, of the department’s Prevention Treatment and Care Program, said in a statement earlier this week.
Sanders said 3,500 people in Utah are known to be living with HIV, and 78% of them live in Salt Lake County. Another one in 15 of the at-risk population likely has HIV and doesn’t know it. The campaign is intended to direct more people to be tested and take preventive medications.
“There just isn’t enough education and programming in Utah to inform our citizens,” he said, adding that the condoms were not meant to be offensive, but were intended “for people who are sexually active and concerned about their sexual well-being and interested in preventing spread of this disease.”
Sanders said the committee went through all the “proper channels” and got approval from Tom Hudachko, director of communications at the Utah Department of Health.
“We did not go rogue with this,” Sanders said, adding that Hudachko was fired Thursday. The governor’s office said Hudachko was not fired, but said it could not further discuss personnel matters. The health department declined to comment on Hudachko’s employment status. Attempts to reach Hudachko, who has worked for the state for 20 years, on Thursday were unsuccessful.
The Utah AIDS Foundation said Thursday it supports the health department “for taking a critical step forward in the fight against the HIV epidemic in Utah by providing the community with culturally competent and relevant tools that they have a right to.”
The health department reports that a new case of HIV, a precursor to AIDS, is diagnosed every three days, with about 120 new infections each year in the Beehive State.
Other states have carried out similarly risqué campaigns to get people talking about HIV, including condoms with a slogan denoting the oil mining industry in both Wyoming and Alaska.
“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 health department said Thursday.
The health department has attempted to pull the 42,000 condoms already distributed to its partners. A total of 129,350 condoms were ordered for the campaign.
“Utahns will not have access to this vital HIV prevention and education information,” Sanders said, adding that he hopes Herbert just made a mistake and will reinstate the campaign.
“This is not some crazy, liberal propaganda,” he said.
Contributing: Garna Mejia, KSL TV