Gilead Sciences and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation are taking a somber and serious tone with a new HIV ad as the partners highlight the ongoing battle HIV patients are facing not just with their disease, but the potential criminalization still being attached to it.
In a new 60-second commercial launched just before Christmas and sponsored by HIV and AIDS drug maker Gilead, we see American actor, Tony Award winner and HIV patient André De Shields sitting directly in front of the camera saying simply: “HIV is not crime.”
But the ad highlights that in fact, in many U.S. states, the disease is still being criminalized. “In 30 states, people are being imprisoned due to their HIV status,” De Shields says. This includes outdated laws, mainly enacted in the 1980s when HIV first took hold, that determine certain acts people with HIV make illegal.
Advocacy group the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF), which ran the ad with sponsorship from Gilead, has long demanded these laws be removed.
ETAF says a man living with HIV could, if found guilty and given a maximum sentence, serve 35 years for spitting at a police officer in Texas, or a woman in Georgia could again serve a maximum eight years if her partner says she never disclosed her HIV status, even without evidence of transmission.
On its website, which is linked at the end of the ad, ETAF says “these aren’t hypothetical stories—they’re real cases, and they represent thousands of unjust prison sentences across the country.”
As a second narrator explains in the ad: “These laws don’t keep us safe … instead they create an environment of fear, blame and stigmatization.”
Outside of the issue of injustice, there is another central issue for Gilead, namely that this stigma is stopping HIV-positive patients from seeking out testing and treatment, something that hits Gilead’s sales growth potential.
“Encouraging those unaware of their [HIV] status to avoid testing is robbing people with HIV of their dignity and for people to access treatment,” the second narrator adds.
The ad also focuses in on medication making HIV “no longer a death sentence,” a quiet but unbranded nod to Gilead’s own arsenal of drugs against the disease.
The commercial also talks about the fact that HIV patients “can thrive without the risk of passing it [HIV] onto others,” again a nod to new preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs, several of which Gilead markets.
Gilead markets 12 drugs for HIV/AIDS, including treatment Biktarvy and PrEP drugs Descovy and Truvada, with its HIV franchise as a whole making $4.53 billion in 2021, up 7% year over year.
The California pharma has a long history in advocating for patients with the disease and has run many campaigns for the HIV and AIDS communities over the years.
Last April, it launched its latest program, "Zeroing In: Ending the HIV Epidemic," which saw Gilead gift $24 million in grants to 116 organizations in 41 countries to tackle the epidemic on the ground.
But it’s also been under attack for what some groups have seen as price gouging on medicines that patients need to stay alive and healthy. Last October, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), a longtime critic of the company and a nonprofit organization providing meds and care to HIV/AIDS patients, accused Gilead “of refusing to offer the 340B discount price for HIV drugs to providers who use contract pharmacies.”
Gilead denied the accusation, but the AHF ran a “Greediad” campaign against the pharma, hosting in late October last year a weeklong, twice-daily series of protests targeting Gilead's drug pricing and policies. The protesters repurposed Gilead’s logo as “Greediad” and ran a series of Gilead/Greediad ads in several Bay Area print and online publications.