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Alternative Media: More than Just Cartoons


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-07-01-2006
Volume 0
Issue 0

Whether you're gay or straight, or African-American, white or Hispanic, we knew that we have an audience that is very diverse and experiences the disease in very different ways. Telling the stories in serial format was best.

Live with it," named in tribute to the millions of people who refuse to allow HIV to destroy their lives, is a dark and gritty animated series that doesn't pull any punches when showing just how difficult it is to live with the disease. The series, produced by healthcare ad agency Ignite Health, is an example of how pharmaceutical companies can use non-traditional media to disseminate disease-awareness messages to new or wider audiences.

George Koroneos

"The reason we chose [to make a dramatic cartoon] was because pharmaceutical, company-based, corporate-based education is always trying to show people that are enjoying sort of a freedom of lifestyle—that now because of these therapies they can smile and they can walk on the beach," says Fabio Gratton, chief innovation officer of Ignite Health. "We wanted to focus on a message that was a little bit more dramatic. And when you do drama, it requires tension; it requires a little bit of intrigue and mystery, and a little bit of drama in essence."

The idea for the cartoon series was born out of the need for easier-to-digest educational materials, in a format other than print. Ignite self-produced the series (it was not hired by a pharma company), but the first two episodes of the series are sponsored by Gilead, the company that makes the HIV treatment Truvada. A short, skippable advertisement for Truvada appears before each episode begins, offering the viewer the option to click to the product Web site.

Figuratively Speaking Isaac Mudd and Trevor Goodman are two of the characters in Ignite Health's animated HIV-awareness series "Live With It."

"There's so much noise and activism in the HIV space that we really needed something to break through," Gratton says. "And that was one of the critical lynchpins of our decision to look for something that was going to be a breakthrough strategy."

Live With It

The "Live With It" campaign was designed to capture what living with a disease is really like. Rather than focus on a specific product or therapy, the cartoons offer stories that aim to depict experiences to which patients can relate.

In the series' first episode, the audience meets Isaac Mudd, a single, possibly gay, HIV-positive patient, as he makes his way to his first HIV support meeting. Through the story, he remembers how he found out he was infected and the depression that followed. At the meeting, he meets Trevor Goodman, who says to Mudd, "Start living with it. There'll be plenty of time to die later." Episode two, entitled "Trevor," picks up where the first episode leaves off. This time the focus is on Trevor's life, a married man struggling to tell his pregnant wife he is HIV positive.

Multiple choice "Live With It" is a five-part series that can be downloaded to a computer, an iPod, or streamed directly from www.livewithit.com

Ignite Health extends the storyline through blogs created for each character on MySpace.com, and message boards on a Web site that offer viewers the opportunity to review the episodes and leave comments. "We don't end the episodes by saying, 'And here's the lessons that you need to learn about this,'" Gratton says. "Everybody takes something different from it—some people will like it, some people won't. Some people will get it, some people won't."

In creating the cartoon, Ignite picked characters and story lines that captured the full spectrum of dealing with the diagnosis of a disease: coping with denial, disclosure, and living. "Whether you're gay or straight, or whether you're African-American or white or Hispanic, we knew that we have an audience that is very diverse and experiences the disease in very different ways," Gratton says. "And so we thought that telling these stories in the serial format would be best."

"Live With It" isn't your standard PSA-quality educational content. Similar in animation style to the Grand Theft Auto series video games, with a background and plot that is as bleak as the movie Sin City, the two cartoons available follow the tale of two men who find out they have HIV, and the path they take to cope with it. Aggression, anger, despair, and frustration are written all over the characters' faces as they are forced to explain their situation to their family and partners.

Judging by the feedback on the company's message board, the cartoons are striking a nerve with most viewers. Positive responses range from simple thank yous to short stories detailing first-hand accounts of those struggling with HIV, and even some tips on how others can live with the disease. "We certainly ran a risk by going into an area like HIV," Gratton says. "Because of the activism in that space, there's a lot of people that are very vocal about what they perceive to be any outgoing message that's being put out there. And I'd say 99 percent of the feedback we've received has been extremely positive."

Distribution Channels

Since the cartoons were self-produced, funding proved to be a challenge. Ignite chose a public broadcasting model, using funding from grants and its sponsor, Gilead (the firm is trying to attract other sponsors for future episodes). Once the cartoons were live on the site, Ignite had to drive traffic to the site. According to Gratton, the cartoons are too expensive to self-market—to produce and distribute in-house banner ads, search engine submissions, and pay for the development of the media. So Ignite approached HIV-awareness Web site The Body, which agreed to support and distribute "Live With It" without ever seeing the first episode.

Eventually, Ignite's Web site traffic expanded through partnerships with sites with well-known HIV-positive viewership, such as AEGiS, Gay.com, and Gayhealth.com. But the biggest jump in visitors comes from word of mouth. "People see [the cartoon] and then they write about it on blogs and on their own message boards and add it to their favorite links," Gratton says. "Over time, we've started to get a tremendous amount of traffic from consumer-generated media."

According to Gratton, the Live With It Web site has received traffic from more than 120 countries, and receives approximately 1,000 original visitors every month. The video also is syndicated through iTunes, VEOH, YouTube, and Google Video.

Branching Out

Ignite is currently looking at expanding Live With It's reach to other countries and outlets. A full Spanish-translated version is in the works. Rather than just add subtitles, the company plans to dub audio over the English voices. To reach people without broadband Internet access, the company is looking to create graphic novels that would be distributed along with a DVD of the cartoons.

Ignite also has received requests for a version of the cartoons with a more educational bent. It would include a separate piece that uses the same characters, but incorporates more educational messages about where people should go to get treatments. Episodes four and five will be created as soon as the company secures sponsors.

George Koroneos is Pharmaceutical Executive's associate editor. He can be reached at gkoroneos@advanstar.com

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