SF bids adieu to 'healthy penis'
by Matthew S. Bajko
Sometime after 9 p.m. this Friday (March 24) the five-year-old "healthy penis" will hop into a van – perhaps even a limousine – and wave goodbye to San Francisco, his birthplace and home since the summer of 2002. With the city's syphilis rate among gay men plummeting by 23 percent last year, the nameless healthy penis is needed elsewhere.
Santa Clara County health officials have invited the healthy penis to San Jose for the next six months to alert gay men about the need to get tested and treated for syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease known to increase one's chances of contracting HIV.
"It's kind of sad it is coming to an end," said the healthy penis' father, Scott Metzger, a straight man who created the comical phallus character. "I am prepared for it, though it is going to be a bummer."
Metzger, who insisted his progeny is not modeled after anyone, not only drew the cartoon advertisements featuring the healthy penis and his nemesis, Phil the red-faced syphilis sore, but wrote the dialogue in the strips. Les Pappas, owner of Better World Advertising who came up with the concept for the social marketing campaign, hired Metzger to bring his idea to life.
"Les wanted it to be like the Ritchie Cunningham of penises. He was not to be that square but a happy-go-lucky character," said Metzger. "He is just a silly little character I wanted to be goofy and likeable."
Back in 1998 San Francisco led what would become a national trend in troubling spikes in the rate of syphilis among gay men. Health officials worried the doubling in cases of the STD from year to year was an ominous harbinger for increases in HIV cases. San Francisco's director of STD control, Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, turned to Pappas and his firm to develop a campaign around testing for syphilis.
Los Angeles health officials also hired the agency to develop its own syphilis elimination campaign – both cities had received federal funding to reduce the spread of the STD – and Pappas's firm developed similar approaches for both health departments. The healthy penis took the starring role in San Francisco while Phil played center stage in L.A.
"San Francisco was like 'okay' after a little apprehension and said 'Let's do it.' Los Angeles said 'No. We cannot have a campaign about penises.' So we adapted it," recalled Pappas.
L.A.'s "Stop the Sores" version has since been used in Philadelphia, Portland, and the state of Alabama. The healthy penis traveled to Seattle. Along with the cartoon advertisements, the campaigns have included life-size costumed penis and sore characters and hand-sized penis and sore stress grips. In San Francisco the campaign included an award-winning television ad voiced by local men.
Some critics called the campaign immature when it debuted, but studies have shown the healthy penis ads led more gay men to get tested for the STD.
"People came to love the penis. It grew on them," said Pappas.
In 2005, the city reported 509 syphilis cases compared to 680 cases in 2004. The number of cases in January this year dropped to 26 compared to 45 cases in January 2005. Seventy percent of HIV-positive men report having a recent syphilis test and half of HIV negative men report getting tested.
"We would not have had this success in increased testing or flattening in syphilis cases if gay men hadn't responded to" the campaign said Klausner, whose department spent at least $300,000 on it.
Before the healthy penis leaves for his new home, the community will fete him at Harvey's from 6 to 9 p.m. with a party, farewell speeches, and drinks and food (hot dogs are said to be on the menu).
"I am having one more night with the healthy penis. I don't want Phil though," said Supervisor Bevan Dufty.
Glad to share him with his gay brethren in San Jose, Dufty surmised Friday night might not be the last time he sees the healthy penis.
"It is going to be like Cher where he will have one tour after another. If you can turn back time, you can bring back the healthy penis," joked Dufty.