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Home Sexual Health Sexual Health Getting the Message Across with Awarenesswear

Getting the Message Across with Awarenesswear

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Looking for a way to educate and inform others about herpes while raising awareness of this common infection-and look stylish doing it? Then you might be interested in AwarenessWear from OBGear. The brainchild of Joanna Giansanti, a graphic designer from upstate New York, AwarenessWear t-shirts and buttons present some basic facts about herpes in a bold and playful manner designed to not only attract the eye but spark conversation as well.

OBGear (the “OB” stands for “outbreak”) began in 2005, as Giansanti was looking for a new creative outlet for her artistic skills that would also make a broader impact. As she explains, “I wanted to do something fun that meant something to me, something I believe in.” Giansanti developed clever designs to highlight herpes infection rates and the risks of transmission through oral sex as way to “get a message out in a graphic way that you don’t usually see.”

While working on her original designs, Giansanti was fortunate to have the feedback from several online friends at the Herpes Home Page. Friends from the forum served as an informal market research group, offering valuable feedback on design elements and word choice for the product line. While the creation of OBGear was a solo venture, Giansanti acknowledges that without the help and support from the HHP community, OBGear might not have gotten off the ground.

The feedback Giansanti received from friends at HHP was constructive in refining the message, but not necessarily representative of the view of everyone in the online H community. Indeed, as Giansanti recalls, “I was really surprised to receive e-mails from within the community that said, ‘I wish you had the design on the shirt without the words. It’s a great idea, but I wouldn’t wear it because it has the word herpes.’” Some suggested that the graphic alone-slash marks indicating 1 in 4 infected-on a shirt would be a silent way for those with herpes to identify themselves to one another. But as Giansanti acknowledges, that wouldn’t serve the purpose of educating those who aren’t in the know and aren’t aware of the basic facts.

Educating others about herpes was certainly a goal of the staff University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development, a recruiting center for the HerpeVac (herpes vaccine) clinical trial for women. Center staff wear customized AwarenessWear t-shirts themselves to promote the HerpeVac study, and have had several women report that they came in to be screened specifically because they saw a t-shirt. Staff also give shirts to study participants (and anyone else who might be interested in wearing one). While a few women in the study have been reluctant to wear the shirts, the vast majority are glad to have them.

The shirts have also been successful in creating conversation beyond the trial, Research Coordinator Jane Cowan, RN, BSN, notes. “The shirts have sparked discussions. People are surprised by the statistics. Our younger team members wear the shirts to clubs and end up spending a good deal of time talking about herpes at the clubs, and health center employees who wear it on the metro system say they get many questions while riding to work”

While the overwhelming response to the shirts has been positive, center staff has received some negative feedback. As one center employee reported, “Once I was in the grocery store in town mid-morning and noticed the usually friendly crowd was avoiding me. I forgot I had the shirt on and could not figure out the problem. I finally realized I had the shirt on and the moms shopping with their children probably did not want to deal with questions the shirt might instigate.”

In her own experience, Giansanti said she hadn’t received any negative feedback when wearing her shirt around town-in fact, she hasn’t received any comments at all. What has drawn people’s eye more, she says, are the buttons. With such slogans as “cold sore + oral sex = genital herpes,” the colorful buttons attract attention and provoke questions. “It’s small, so people have a harder time reading it. They’ll look at it and ask, ‘What does your button say?’” This then opens the door to conversation.

And that, Giansanti says, is the purpose of AwarenessWear: “I’m not doing this to make money, but to raise awareness.” While OBGear is limited to herpes designs at the moment, Giansanti has some other ideas in her sketchbook and may launch additional products related to HPV and other sexually transmitted infections in the future. Her goal is to put OBGear into the black and donate profits to organizations involved in HSV and STI support, education, and awareness.


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