Casey House: Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance to Smash HIV Stigma

Canadian hospital reworks 'I Will Survive'

Adland loves to stage unusual musicals, hyping products and services by putting tunes and dance numbers where they seemingly don't belong.

Of late, we've seen this approach for personal finance, diapers and animal rights. Not so much in healthcare, where earnest, emotional appeals hold sway.

But a Toronto hospital that specializes in HIV treatment is breaking with the pack and making with the melodies. 

We get a high-stepping appeal from Casey House, which likes to deviate from category norms, and does so now to fight persistent stigmas and foster empathy.

The target: healthcare professionals. The goal: equitable care. The set-up: A faux-pharma promo video from Bensimon Byrne and director Mark Gilbert touting a fictitious drug called "Stigmavir."

The song: a reworking of Gloria Gaynor's disco thumper "I Will Survive," delivered in rousing style by doctors, nurses, dentists and other practitioners.

"I'd stigmatize all the time.
Looking back at my behavior, yeah it should have been a crime.
I should have trusted science grounded in reality. 
Instead, I broke the trust that my patients had in me."

Casey House | Stigmavir

"Now Stigmavir, it made things clear. 
I'm finally cured now. No more HIV fear.
Now I treat all my patients just the way I should.
Now I use my kindness for the greater good."

People living with HIV,
deserve the same care as you, and you, and me!"

The team was driven by research showing 1 in 5 people living with HIV are denied healthcare because of stigma.

"In simple terms, this means something like having to phone five dentists before you find one willing to do a simple teeth cleaning," Joseph Bonnici, CCO for Bensimon parent company Tadiem, tells Muse. "As you can imagine, it's a delicate subject. After all, we all know healthcare providers like doctors, nurses, dentists and administrators work very hard. So, we focused on ideas that would 'call them in' to a conversation versus 'calling them out.'"

Touting a bogus drug, "was one of the first ideas on the table and we immediately saw its value," Bonnici says. "It spoke to healthcare practitioners in a language they understand. And it had the potential to have the right tone. We didn't want to blame or shame people in the medical profession. And the idea of this fictitious drug had just the right levity for us to deliver the information and education in an impactful way."

From the start, the team believed "I Will Survive" was the only soundtrack choice.

"There was no alternative," Bonnici says. "It is an iconic anthem and we knew that Gloria Gaynor has been an advocate of people living with HIV for decades. She graciously donated the rights. It's very rare to be given permission to completely rewrite all the lyrics in the way that we have, and she and her team have been incredibly supportive. 

Jared Kuemper at music Berkeley Inc. facilitated that process.

"There are many words when you are describing HIV stigma and its complexity that don't exactly roll off the tongue. So we went back and forth between the agency and Jared a few times to get it right," Bonnici says. "We also had to get it approved by Gloria Gaynor. Luckily for us, she is an incredible ally and that was easy."

This type of project rises or falls on the courage of convictions. Thankfully, "Stigmavir" never lets up. It's off-kilter from the start, and gets wonderfully wacky—but always stays on point.

Gilbert's crew filmed in a single day packed with 50 individual shots.

"We had three flats that were painted a pale pink and tan, along with a collection of medical, dental and hospital props that the production designer, Jeremy McFarlane, and I had selected," Gilbert recalls. "I would run in to give the actors some things to think about, we would move a few props around and make some blocking adjustments, shoot a quick take and we would be moving on."

"The musical nature of the storytelling dictated that we pre-recorded the modified vocals for 'I Will Survive,'" he says. "So, we were able to set up the scenes in the surgery, dental office and hospital and move through them quite efficiently because the pace had already been determined by the song's pacing."

Those ginormous Stigmavir pill boxes and blister packs falling from the sky memorably sell the message.

"Normally in a commercial, we are trying to place the product without seeming to be too heavy handed," Gilbert says. "In this case, we wanted to emphasize Stigmavir as much as humanly possible in an entertaining way."

"The script called for the healthcare workers to be dancing down a hallway on location. So, I just thought that since we had moved it to a stylized set, we could have them dancing toward the camera among these Stigmavir packs to drive home the understanding that this was a pharma product solving their stigmatizing habits."

Bonnici adds: "As the actors ran through their dance numbers, their happiness and energy was palpable in the studio. It was just one of those days you remember fondly because everyone who was there shared a common goal."

To bring the concept into the physical world, Casey House's HIV stigma-free symbol—based on LGBTQ+ signage seen in the windows of businesses—is available for download, along with a toolkit and other materials.


Title: "Stigmavir"
Brand Platform: #SmashStigma
Client: Casey House
Chief Executive Officer: Joanne Simons
Chief Development and Marketing Officer: Alanna Scott
Communications Director: Lisa McDonald
Agency: Bensimon Byrne
Chief Creative Officer: Joseph Bonnici
SVP Strategy: Jenn Bell
Creative Director: David Mueller
Creative Director: Gints Bruveris
Associate Creative Director: Kyle Simons
Copywriters: Nathan Houseley, Kyle Simons, David Mueller
Art Director: Gints Bruveris
Designer: Feilin Fu
Agency Producer: Michelle Pilling
Business Lead: Jessica Cupola
Project Manager: Sandra Morales-Macedo
Program Director: Oliver Glover
Studio Director: Sanjay Manjar
Studio Designer: Rudy Cho
PR/XM Agency: Narrative
Vice President: Lauren Baswick
Account Director: Cole Douglas
Director, Experiential: Jaclyn Kirk
Senior Account Manager: Samantha Sartor
Account Manager: Sreeja Sasidharan
Account Manager: Aaron Short
Associate Account Manager, XM: John Sequeira
Media Agency: Bensimon Byrne
Production Company: Untitled Films
Executive Producer: Tom Evelyn
Director: Mark Gilbert
Director of Photography: Kris Belchevsky
Line Producer: Adam Rodness
Production Coordinator: Tyler Klementti
Casting: Mann Casting
Choreographer: Mark Samuels
Editorial: Button Factory
Producer: Michelle Pilling
Editor (offline): Tim Pienta
Editor (online): Jacques Parys
Transfer: Artjail
Colourist: Clinton Hommuth
Music and Sound Design: Berkeley Inc.
Executive Producer: Tyna Maerzke
Director/Engineer: Jared Kuemper

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