Background: Over the past three years, several hundred syphilis cases among gay or bisexual men have been recorded in the UK including outbreaks in Manchester, Brighton and London.
To address the increase in the number of diagnosed cases, the Department of Health awarded the Terrence Higgins Trust a grant for an integrated media campaign.
Aims: The campaign was targeted at those most at risk of syphilis, in this case, gay men with around 10 or more sexual partners a year.
The awareness push needed to explain the chief routes of transmission through oral sex and unprotected anal sex, and provide information on precautions to prevent the spread of syphilis.
The trust did not want to use scare tactics as the aim was not to cause widespread panic about syphilis but to control the problem before it became too big.
One of the main objectives was to describe the symptoms of the disease and encourage screening among gay men so that treatment can be given as early as possible.
The secondary element of the campaign was to notify professionals working in the field of gay men's health, agencies tackling syphilis at a local level and the Public Health Laboratory Service, which is responsible for monitoring the spread of syphilis.
How it worked The charity called upon Felton Communications to deliver the message that "syphilis is making a comeback".
The agency used the fact that syphilis was last at its peak in the 1970s.
Images associated with the period were used to illustrate the idea of something coming back from the past. The imagery was styled to be sexual and humorous to appeal to the target audience.
The campaign was tested on focus groups made up of the target audience and health workers.
Press ads, which carried the trust's helpline and web site address, appeared in the HIV positive and gay press and a booklet was distributed in the leading UK free gay magazine Boyz, as well as in gay bars, where promotional lollipops were also distributed.
A briefing paper for professionals was sent to sexual health clinics and agencies, together with posters, and a banner ad appeared on gay.com with links to the Terrence Higgins Trust web site.
Results: The syphilis campaign started in September last year and ran for three months. It has just won two prestigious awards including the gold award in the third-sector category at the Marketing Brand Design awards hosted by Marketing magazine.
Since the campaign ran, awareness about the disease has improved. Before the campaign, approximately 10 per cent of gay men surveyed had attended a sexual health clinic for a routine check, whereas after the push the number had more than doubled.
The banner ad on gay.com received 2,000 clicks in the first month of the campaign. And earlier this year, the trust was approached by the Greater Glasgow NHS for permission to use the ads in Scotland. The Department of Health has also just given the Terrence Higgins Trust another grant to rerun the adverts in Boyz and QX magazine.