The one where Casey House uses Friends (and The Office) to smash HIV/AIDS stigma

Who: Casey House, Bensimon Byrne and OneMethod, with Narrative for PR.

What: The latest in the ongoing “Smash Stigma” campaign, this time built around “never-before-seen” episodes of two iconic sitcoms, Friends and The Office. 

It’s harnessing the power of a pair of pop culture touchstones to deliver a message to an expected global audience (Dominos Pizza employed a similar tactic this week, using footage from another NBC sitcom, Cheers, to promote its new Domino’s Pie Pass).

When & Where: The campaign broke Wednesday (Feb. 19) and resides on the website. It’s also being teased on social. The real goal here is to generate extensive earned media.

Why: While treatment of HIV/AIDS has improved immeasurably over the years, the stigma—and misunderstanding—remains. According to research conducted by Maru/Blue on behalf of Casey House, 65 million North Americans would rather see their favourite TV character die than be diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

Stigma is the one issue around HIV/AIDS that is not talked about enough, says Casey House CEO Joanne Simons.

How: The campaign recreates existing episodes of Friends and The Office to tell a story about one of their characters (Chandler Bing and Oscar Martinez) being diagnosed as HIV positive. The two five-minute videos use actual footage from the showshere renamed Losing Friends and The Toxic Office—with professional voice impersonators delivering entirely new dialogue relating to the HIV/AIDS storyline (see the videos below).

The lower half of the face of a series of lookalike actors was digitally blended with the face of their Hollywood counterpart to create a seamless visual of Chandler, Ross, Michael Scott, Toby, Pam, etc. delivering the new dialogue. The Losing Friends video features Chandler receiving a call informing him that he has tested positive for HIV, for example, while the original Friends episode showed actor Matthew Perry reacting to a call from a fertility doctor.

The creative team searched 236 Friends episodes and 203 episodes of The Office to find scenes that could be re-edited, re-written and re-ordered to create a storyline in which the character is diagnosed as HIV positive and forced to deal with the generally negative reaction of friends and co-workers.

“We didn’t want the special effects to be a distraction, so from the get-go we said ‘If we’re going to do this it has to be perfect,'” said Bensimon Byrne executive creative director Joseph Bonnici, who described the eight-month process as a “gargantuan undertaking.”

The Smash Stigma website also houses a video series entitled “Untold stories of stigma,” which features six people with HIV recounting stories about how they were impacted by stigma and how they flourished.

Wait, can they do that?: Bonnici says that the agency did not reach out to either the studios or individual actors from Friends or The Office about the campaign, but doesn’t anticipate any blowback.

“[W]e’re hopeful that if they see it they’ll love it. We think it’s pretty faithful to the spirit and the values of both shows and we felt that, creatively, it would capture attention and resonate.

“Sure, it’s a bit bold but we don’t expect any legal issue,” he added. “No one here is trying to make money or scoop their residuals. We’re hopeful that if they see it they’ll love it.”

The backstory: For the past two years, Casey House has relied on experiential events—June’s HIV+ Eatery and The Healing House —to challenge people’s misperceptions and fears around HIV.

Those efforts generated more than 1.5 billion earned impressions worth an estimated $30 million, and a documentary called June’s that aired on HBO Canada. But despite their success, Bonnici felt the agency had gone as far as it could do with that approach.

“[W]e decided to change the way we went about this campaign and go into a much more digital, social route,” he said during a launch event for the campaign Wednesday morning. “Using iconic pieces of content like Friends and The Office allows us to talk to a massive global audience that wasn’t available to us the previous two years.”

“When they presented this idea, everybody kind of took a bit of a breath, and understood that it was a very bold move,” added Simons. “We talked it through in terms of what it means for our clients and what it means for Casey House, and it was honestly an easy yes. We felt it was appropriate that we make a bold move and use pop culture to start a global conversation”

Why these shows? Both Friends and The Office have an enormous global following, and resonate with Gen X viewers, as well as their children. “We need to get the message out not just to my generation and boomers, but to a younger generation as well,” says Bonnici. “People just stop talking about HIV and AIDS, and this is a way to get them talking about it again.”

And we quote:  “It is stunning. You cannot tell the difference. They pieced it together scene by scene and it’s just phenomenal.”— Joanne Simons, CEO, Casey House.

Chris Powell