Characters From Friends and The Office Contract HIV in PSAs Addressing Stigma

Plot twists from Canada's Casey House

[UPDATE: Somewhat predictably, Warner Bros. demanded the Friends clip be taken off the smashstigma.ca website. Casey House complied with that request and released this statement:

Unfortunately we had to remove our adaptation episode of Friends, "Losing Friends" from smashstigma.ca  after receiving a takedown notice under the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) issued by Warner Bros. Casey House has spoken with Warner Bros., and we are contacting the cast members and producers of Friends to get them on board and supportive of this important cause.

Our (very funny) adaptation of The Office, The Toxic Office is still up on smashstigma.ca as is our docuseries, The Untold Stories of Stigma. We encourage everyone to go there and share the site with your readers/viewers.

Casey House created these adaptations to help educate the world on the stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS that is now more deadly than the disease.

Our original story is below.]

Remember the episode of Friends where Chandler tests positive for HIV and faces Joey's ignorant, hurtful questions? Of course not. No such plot line ran during the classic sitcom's 10-season NBC run that ended in 2004.

How about that installment of The Office where Oscar endures a hostile workplace environment at Dunder Mifflin after he reveals an HIV diagnosis? Also an NBC hit, the show lasted a decade, but no such episode was produced.

Now, however, both storylines play out as part of an unconventional HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, "Smash Stigma," developed by Canadian hospital Casey House with Bensimon Byrne, Narrative and OneMethod, all sibling shops in Toronto.

The creative approach stems at least partly from a client survey in which many respondents said they would prefer their favorite TV characters die rather than receive an HIV/AIDS diagnosis. Building off that insight, the team watched hundreds of episode of Friends and The Office, selecting scenes that fit their new scripts, written to foster empathy and spark conversations.

Voice impersonators dubbed the campaign's HIV-themed dialogue, while, via special effects, the mouths of the original cast members were replaced in the footage with those of lookalikes speaking the new lines.

You can watch the results—powerful at times, but also quite jarring—in each five-minute "episode" below:

Casey House | Friends
Casey House | The Office

"We believed this was the year we could use the power of pop culture to shift perceptions," Bensimon Byrne partner and executive creative director Joseph Bonnici tells Muse.

"These are two of the most popular shows on the planet" and allowed the team to cover different aspects of the problem and reflect its true scale, Bonnici says.

The narrative of "Losing Friends" explores "the stigma someone can experience from those closest to them, friends and family," Bonnici says. Meanwhile, "The Toxic Office" "allows us to show stigma in the workplace," he says. "People are losing their jobs, their health insurance over this."

In years past, the Casey House team focused on creating intimate, IRL experiences that garnered consiberable coverage for the cause. In 2017, they opened a pop-up restaurant with meals prepared by HIV-positive chefs; a massage spa with HIV-positive therapists followed. 

"This year, we chose to take a digital approach to reach people in a way that would speak to them but resonate with a global audience," Bonnici says. "These two shows also cross generations: boomers, Gen X, millennials and now their kids. Unless we educate and inform a large cross-section of society, we can't make progress."

According to Casey House CEO Joanne Simons, "there is a disturbing gap in the conversation that is being ignored between the incredible strides we have made in the medical treatment of the disease, and the startling lack of progress in society's treatment of those living with HIV. Casey House is working to bridge that gap."

Edgy and thought provoking, the daring approach was undertaken without the blessing of rights holders, who weren’t informed of the plan to use augmented footage. 

"To be honest, we've not reached out to them But we'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," Bonnici says. 

"Sure, it's a bit bold, but we don't expect any legal issue. No one here is trying to make money or scoop their residuals. HIV stigma is a massive health issue, and they have the power to help us draw attention to it and help shift perceptions."

The campaign also includes real stories of six people who learned to flourish while coping with HIV. Those videos are toward the bottom of the Smash Stigma site.

CREDITS

Casey House
CEO: Joanne Simons
Chief Marketing and Development Officer: Mark Trask
Communications Officer: Lisa McDonald

Bensimon Byrne
Partner/ECD: Joseph Bonnici
CD: David Mueller
CD: Gints Bruveris
ACD/Writer: Matthew Valenzano
Art Director: Ana Segurajauregui Sanchez
Account Director: Will Dell
Project Manager: Jordan Lane
Project Manager: Ashley Belfast
Media Director: Eugene Makhouleen (Digital Analytics Director)
Strategy Director:  Daniella Perruccio
Social Strategist: Rebecca Millner
Producer: Michelle Pilling
Editor: Tim Pienta
Cameraman: Julian Peter

Narrative
Sarah Spence, Managing Director
Debbie Chan, Creative Director
Lauren Baswick, Account Director
Jessie Sorell, Associate Creative Director,
Denise Roy, Senior Account Manager
Tony Koutoulous, Account Manager
Jackie Kleinberg, Account Manager
Jessica Leroux, Account Manager,
Fiorella Martinez, Art Director
Sarah Santarossa, Associate Account Manager,
Aaron Nilsen, Account Coordinator
Kaitlin Copp, Account Coordinator

OneMethod
ACD: John Hotts
XD Director: Kurt Krumme
Senior Develop: Dov Atlin
Developer: Stephanie Nero
Designer: Cameron Harapiak
Project Coordinator: Naomi Sklar

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David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is senior editor at Clio Awards.

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