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"Syphilis Tsunami" Ad Along I-95 Aims to Shock Miami Into Action

"Syphilis Tsunami" Ad Along I-95 Aims to Shock Miami Into Action
AIDS Healthcare Foundation

Among the safe-sex advisories and strip-club ads that line I-95 in South Florida, one billboard has always been especially eye-catching. For months, the text on the double-billboard screamed "SYPHILIS EXPLOSION" above a huge glittery volcano.

Sadly, that sign has been taken down. But another natural-disaster-themed STD alert has taken its place. Behold the "Syphilis Tsunami." The gigantic billboard south of Wynwood makes use of the iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa to warn of rising STD rates in South Florida, which reported more than 2,200 cases of syphilis from 2013 to 2015, or about 42 percent of all cases in the Sunshine State.

The billboards are the work of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that is the largest provider of HIV/AIDS care in the nation. A spokesman for the organization tells New Times the ads, which point viewers to freeSTDcheck.org, are meant to be dramatic.

"When you think about a tsunami, when you think about an explosion, there is a time-sensitive call to action in terms of how communities address those issues," says Imara Canady, regional director for communications and community engagement for AHF's southern bureau. "And so it's kind of the metaphor of how we need to be addressing syphilis and STDs."

Predictably, the new signs drew attention soon after making their debut in Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, and other cities where AHF says syphilis rates are rising.

And though many seemed amused by the ad, some decried it as racist:

AHF's advertising style has caused controversy in the past. In 2015, the group's use of Tinder's logo on billboards earned it a cease-and-desist letter from the dating app. (Ultimately, Tinder agreed to add a health-safety section that includes a link to a free STD-testing site locator.) Last year, the organization removed two giant condom-featuring ads from I-95 and I-595 after being pressured by Fort Lauderdale tourism officials.

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Canady says AHF's ads are designed to be attention-grabbing and in-your-face. "Syphilis Tsunami" is Phase 2 of "Syphilis Explosion," he says.

Will the next ad stick to the natural disaster theme and warn of a syphilis tornado or syphilis earthquake?

"Stay tuned!" Canady says.

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