Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Why This Canadian Speciality Hospital Created a Fictitious Drug that Smashes Stigma

Production Company
Toronto, Canada
Tadiem’s Joseph Bonnici and Untitled Films’ Mark Gilbert on combatting a shocking HIV stigma-based fact, and why a musical PSA set to ‘I Will Survive’ was the right way to draw attention, writes LBB’s Jordan Won Neufeldt
Here’s something you probably didn’t know. According to Toronto-based speciality hospital Casey House, one in five people with HIV are denied healthcare, purely due to stigma. 

This is absolutely absurd. An illness should never be a reason that someone doesn’t get medical help – in fact, it’s entirely counterintuitive. After all, a system designed to take care of people’s health ought to do just that, which is something that Casey House is well aware of too. Launching the fifth iteration of its ‘#SmashStigma’ campaign, alongside creative agency Bensimon Byrne, the two decided to put a clever twist on the subject, imagining not a cure for HIV, but a cure for the healthcare workers displaying ridiculous behaviour influenced by stigma. 

Called ‘Stigmavir’ – also the name of the spot – this creative idea gave way to an epic PSA, set to a rewritten version of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’. Complete with dancing, floating pills and singing, the work, directed by Untitled Films’ Mark Gilbert is both fun and damning, providing an insight into what the healthcare industry ought to look like… ideally without the need for a fictitious medication in the first place. 

To learn more about just how this came to life, LBB’s Jordan Won Neufeldt sat down with Mark, as well as Casey House board member and chief creative officer of Tadiem (Bensimon Byrne’s parent company), Joseph Bonnici, for a chat. 

LBB> From the top, what was the brief for this campaign, and what ideas came to mind? 

Joseph> The brief for this campaign really started from a shocking research statistic. Believe it or not, one in five 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.

As you can imagine, it’s a delicate subject. Afterall, we all know healthcare providers like doctors, nurses, dentists, administrators, etc. work very hard. So, we focused on ideas that would ‘call them in’ to a conversation versus ‘call them out’.

LBB> Specifically, how did the idea of ‘Stigmavir’ come to pass? And what made it the right way to get the message across?

Joseph> The idea behind this year’s campaign is simple. Casey House has created a fictitious yet innovative drug called ‘Stigmavir’ that cures all stigmatising behaviour in healthcare providers with just one dose. It was one of the first ideas on the table and we immediately saw its value. It spoke to healthcare practitioners in a language they understood. And, it had the potential to have the right tone.

From the outset, 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.

LBB> Of course, we have to talk about the use of ‘I Will Survive’, which Gloria Gaynor provided the rights for. What did it take to make this happen?

Joseph> This was one of those happy stories where all of the right people wanted to do good. From the beginning, this was the song. There was no alternative. It is an anthem and we knew from desk research that Gloria Gaynor has been an advocate of people living with HIV for decades. So, she graciously donated the rights to the music, but the bigger gift she gave us was the right to completely rewrite the lyrics. 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. This was all facilitated by Jared Kuemper at Berkeley Inc., who has been a supporter of Casey House from the very beginning.

LBB> Building on this, what was the lyric re-writing process like? 

Joseph> It was difficult. Beyond telling the story and educating about an issue, there were some musical realities. 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 at Berkeley a few times to get it right. We also had to get it approved by Gloria Gaynor. Luckily for us, she is an incredible ally and that was easy.

LBB> Notably, this campaign was directed by Mark Gilbert. Why was he the perfect person to bring this spot to life?

Joseph> Mark Gilbert has directed iconic work, so when he expressed interest in this year’s Casey House campaign, we were immediately thrilled. Once we got on a phone call with Mark, we knew he was our only choice to direct this. I cannot tell you how easy this process has been with him. He's challenged us. We've challenged him. We've made it better together.

He was incredibly inquisitive about stigma. All of the references he brought forward were so interesting and unexpected, but completely bang on. And, he never stopped making this campaign better from our initial call to the very end. For example, he suggested that we put a voiceover off the top and make it more like a pharmaceutical promotional video for Stigmavir, to better speak to those in healthcare. And, he brought so much energy and creativity to the dance sequences and the way it was shot. He had so little time to shoot so much material, yet he still managed to bring a level of craft to the production that was incredible.

LBB> With that in mind, Mark, can you tell us more about why this was something you were keen to be involved in?

Mark> I believe this is probably one of the cleverest campaigns I have ever seen put down on paper. Bensimon Byrne has created something so special with this, and as soon as I got a full grasp of the intention of the script, I was blown away. The idea of creating an entire narrative about a drug that addresses the stigma of healthcare workers is genius. 

As soon I realised what we had on our hands, I was inspired to pour absolutely everything into the idea. Over the course of my career, I’ve been lucky to work on some incredible and award-winning concepts, and I was extremely motivated to work on this with the great team of talented creatives at Bensimon Byrne.

Casey House is also a cause I strongly believe in. I love the work it's doing as Canada’s only hospital for people living with and at risk of HIV. The team’s approach to breaking down barriers is innovative and based strongly in compassion. They are clearly making the world a better place, which is always inspiring in terms of choosing who to partner with on projects. 

LBB> What was the storyboarding process like? On a technical level, how did you approach visualising the blend between a music video and an ad? 

Mark> The storyboard process was really fun. It involved trying to tell this deeply emotional story of stigma, seeing our healthcare workers reflect on poor behaviour, introducing a miracle drug, Stigmavir, and then finally watching a somewhat euphoric celebration of the said wonder drug. We wanted to telegraph this heavy emotion in the beginning, and then transition into something almost euphoric while entertaining the viewer about a fictional drug.

So much of it was just about finding a way to be efficient with the visual storytelling, as it was a massive story to tell. At first, it feels like it is very much from the perspective of those living with HIV, and then we move into something that is decidedly from the perspective of the healthcare workers that were doing the stigmatising. This was definitely at the forefront of my mind while boarding it out. 

We definitely also incorporated some music video elements due to the film’s musical nature, but my primary goal was to tell a great story and make sure that we served the greater idea of introducing a drug called Stigmavir that solves a very serious problem. Ultimately, that drug is fictional, but we play it as drama to create comedy and I wanted to hold true to that intention. 

LBB> Building on this, what were you aiming for in terms of overall aesthetic and feel? Did you influence the spot’s distinct colour palette?

Mark> This story transitions from scenes of stigma, evolving from heavy to celebratory. I aimed to maintain a pastel palette overall at the opening, and then the idea was to infuse a lot of colour in the wardrobe in the later part of the story. ‘Sex Education’, a British episodic series, served as inspiration. 

LBB> What was the casting process like? What were you looking for with the various roles in the script, and how did you find the right people for the job?

Mark> We made a decision early on to cast the role of healthcare workers with a musical theatre background. So, the next task was to find people within that realm that had great instincts as actors. 

For the healthcare workers, we were looking for a broad range of emotions, from reflective all the way through to jubilant. Seeing as our actors had to sing, it was a big ask, and we just had to dig deep until we found the right folks for the role.

The other roles that were extraordinary were those who portrayed people with HIV, played by real people living with HIV. We were able to access these individuals with the help of Casey House’s community, and were absolutely blessed to have them on set, bringing to life experiences of stigma that they themselves have faced. Directing them in a relatively new environment – they absolutely knocked it out of the park in terms of bringing nuance and emotion to the roles. 

LBB> What was the shooting experience like? Do you have any anecdotes from on set?

Mark> Believe it or not, we had only one day to film the entire piece. So, I made the decision to shoot it on set to allow us to be nimble and move from one scene to the next with very little interruption. We had three flats that were painted pale, pink and tan, along with a collection of medical, dental and hospital props that the production designer, Jeremy McFarlane, and I had selected. It took a lot of previsualisation and many conversations between the two of us to come up with a way to make it all work in the allotted time frame. Once we were on set, it was such a lovely creative process to piece it together from what we had in our mind’s eye. 

I think the most significant sentiment that we felt was elation that we were actually pulling this off. We would do two or three takes per setup, and then move on, so the energy level was very high in a really positive way. 

Joseph> All in all, I think it was 47 shots setups. Mark shot this at an incredible pace, and the vibe on set was so fun. It’s not often that you get to shoot something this full of joy, and you could feel that. 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.

LBB> What type of gear did you bring along, and what made it right for the job?

Mark> We chose to shoot all of this on a techno crane to allow us to be as nimble as possible. We even went so far as to shoot everything on a zoom lens so we didn’t have to bring the camera down between takes to change lenses. 

Every second was precious. The lighting was all purpose in many ways as well, so we were able to move extremely quickly. As soon as we had modified the set in terms of blocking and art department, we were ready to start filming. We were moving at a blistering pace as we had an incredibly large story to tell, and this approach served us well. Shoutout to Kris Belchevski, the cinematographer, who helped us pull this off in such an extremely tight time frame.

LBB> In particular, the sequence among the giant Stigmavir boxes is awesome. What did it take to bring this to life on a practical level?

Mark> The giant boxes and blister packs were an addition which I had made during the treatment process. It was essential to me that no one out there missed the fact that Stigmavir was a drug, in a pill form, aimed at curbing stigma. Normally, in a commercial, we are trying to place the product without seeming to be too heavy handed. But in this case, to me, it felt that we wanted to emphasise Stigmavir as much as humanly possible (in an entertaining way). 

The script had 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 stylised set, we could just have them dancing toward camera among these Stigmavir packs to drive home the understanding that this was a pharma product and that they were elated it was addressing their stigmatising habits. Essentially, the entire spot is one big piss-take on a pharma ad, and this was an opportunity to do that while helping the storytelling along nicely.

LBB> The dancing is super fun! What was choreography like, and how did the final shots come to life? 

Mark> Yes, the dancing was such a pleasure to concept and choreograph! I worked closely with Mark Samuels, who helped us to choreograph. I really wanted the dance scenes to be fabulous within the context of the greater story. The idea was to elicit a feeling of euphoria and a sense that all is well in the world now that Stigmavir is a reality. I also really wanted a sense of connection, jubilation, and real communal joy that this awful problem of stigma had been cured. 

On the shoot day, we literally had about 30 minutes to shoot the entirety of the final dance component, so the energy was high. Luckily, we managed to marry the camera moves and choreography in a brilliant manner. 

LBB> Seeing as you had a hand in post, how did that go? And how long did the project take from start to finish?

Mark> Honestly, I was more involved in post on this project than anything else I have ever done. At that stage, we added the comprehensive VO, the Stigmavir title cards, and many of the pharma-based elements. This was also the portion of the process where I was able to realise the vision of adding the Stigmavir packs, the blister packs, and pills, which was something that was in my head early on during the concept phase. 

To see this come to life took a lot of trial and error. We were working with a great CG artist, Jacques Parys, to come up with the packs, and the talented editor, Tim Pienta, and myself were going back and forth trying to integrate the footage we had shot with various iterations of those CG elements. Tim was a pivotal sounding board and collaborator all the way through the process. 

The end result represents six to eight weeks of work, from initial concepting to a previs animatic, to many, many rough edits in the post process, until we finally achieved the version you see today. 

LBB> What challenges have you faced during this project? How did you overcome them?

Joseph> It was important to launch with the support of healthcare practitioners because it gives the campaign credibility.

The City of Toronto and the chief medical officer, Dr Eileen Deville, came on board as a partner in this campaign to help promote stigma free healthcare. That really allowed us to reach out to the healthcare community and get multiple clinics on board to promise to be stigma-free spaces for people living with HIV. Because, in the end, this campaign isn’t about awareness, it’s about change. And we have to create change. Now.

Mark> I think the biggest challenge we faced was our limited budget as a PSA, which constrained both our shooting schedule and locations. Initially, we thought shooting on location was the right approach, but once we pivoted to shooting on set, it opened up a whole world of creative solutions to make things work smoothly. In my opinion, the piece has a much more cohesive visual style because we were able to make the entire story live in this stylised world. 

LBB> What lessons have you learned from the making of this campaign?

Joseph> This is the fifth iteration of Casey House’s ‘#SmashStigma’ campaign. Sometimes it’s difficult to attach a lighter tonality to an issue as serious as this. But we were all in on creating something that could have an impact, and we all just trusted that we were doing the right thing from the very beginning. I love it when you have a group of people working on a project who just see things the same way. Sometimes, you just have to run with it and not second guess yourself.

Mark> The lesson that resonates with me is a reminder that really, really clever ideas are the most important element in any campaign. I pride myself on being able to execute my craft to the best of my ability. I also believe in contributing critical ideas and suggestions to the storytelling process, particularly when the script is promising. The whole process needs to be collaborative.

However, the overarching concept and idea are so critical to a great campaign, and this one showed great promise from the get-go. 

LBB> Since launch, how have people reacted to this campaign?

Joseph> We had multiple focus groups with both healthcare practitioners and people living with HIV, and the reaction has been unanimously positive. The campaign is opening a dialogue with them. 

The thing about those in the healthcare profession is that they are lifetime learners. So, in a way, this continues their education. We had national news networks at the press conference when we launched, and the interest from the media has been incredible. 

LBB> Finally, is there a sequence in this campaign you’re particularly proud of?

Joseph> I’m proudest of the sequence when the surgeon busts out a series of moves as giant Stigmavir boxes fill the scene. I love watching people watch that scene. A huge smile comes across their face. And it certainly makes me smile.

Mark> I would say the entirety of the piece is what I’m most proud of. It was the first time I had done a musical piece, so it was new territory for me. In fact, I’m mostly known for executing concepts that live in the realm of comedy/performance, as well as visual storytelling. So, to be able to navigate a musical piece that straddles the line between the realms of musical, visual storytelling and a very clever campaign concept was such a pleasure and a unique opportunity. 

All in all, I simply feel so grateful that Joseph Bonnici, and the team at Bensimon Byrne, came to me and put their faith in me with the concept. 

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