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Meet the man behind some of LA's most notorious — and effective — billboards

Jason Farmer, Senior Director of Creative, at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. His job is to oversee all AHF's billboard art and concepts.
Jason Farmer, Senior Director of Creative, at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. His job is to oversee all AHF's billboard art and concepts.
John Rabe

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From their "Feel the Burn?" campaign, which parodies Bernie Sanders' ads, to the ads linking Tindr and Grindr to STD's, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's billboards and bus boards are some of the most talked-about and effective outdoor advertising campaigns around.




So, who gets the credit — or the blame?

Jason Farmer, Senior Director of Creative for AHF. He's the man responsible for the 20-30 AHF billboards you’ll see around Southern California at any given time, plus the bus and bench boards, not to mention many more outdoor ads across America, supported by AHF’s $1.3 billion budget.

I sat down with Farmer at AHF's Los Angeles offices to talk about the creative process.

What are you trying to get the person on the street to do?

What we want people to do it is to look into themselves and to say okay, maybe I do need to go get tested for the hookup night that I had where I’m not so sure I used protection, or anything like that so. We’ve been called “slut shamers,” those type of things. But it really is just to get to the core of people and say, “Hey, this is an easy way for you to go find out, and get the relief you need from having that guilt, that worry inside of you.”


Let's talk about the Tinder and Grindr billboards, which correlate using Tinder and using Grindr with catching STDs.  

We said we just want to be able to advertise our services on your apps. And there was a lot of pushback from them on allowing us to be able to push testing messages and safe sex messages, because you know people don't really want to hear that. They don’t want to think about that when they're trying to hook up.

Are you saying that the billboards came about because there was pushback from Tinder and Grindr?

Right. The idea was that we wanted to create just a very easy way for people to go onto the app and be able to look up safe sex services in their area.

And what happened?

They went up on, I think, a Friday at 7:00 a.m. And by around 9 or 10 we got a cease and desist letter (from Tinder).

Did they go ahead then and give you the ads?

They did give us the ability to have the resources on their app for people to link up to us to get tested, and not just our services, but services that are available to them wherever they are.

And was it a quid pro quo, where you said OK we'll take the billboards down, but we want these we want these ads on there?

Yeah, after that worked out we said OK we're going to you know pull all the billboards we don't want to keep on pushing that message.


You make a lot of jokes on the billboards. What's too sophomoric for you? What pushes it too far?

We don't tend to be able to push it too far just because we have so many channels that we have to go through with a billboard companies, and because there are certain standards that they have to follow, and they have to worry about legalities and things like that you know. But you know as long as it gets people's attention and makes them think about their own sexual practices then we're willing to push it as far as we can.

Do you have something planned for Trump?

No. I've been trying to work on it. You know it's not as easy as “Feel the Burn?” which we just pulled out of the ether and was just waiting to happen. We’re open to suggestions if anybody has any.


You guys are bomb throwers. You're stirring the pot. I have a hard time believing that (getting negative PR) isn’t part of the calculation.

You know, if it’s a problem, we have to put it out there. If it’s going to get negative feedback, that's fine, we'll deal with it.

Do you look at billboards now in a different way and do you critique them? And what really just bugs you about bad billboards.

We've put together a basic idea of what's going to be effective. We’ve found that it's best to stick with three to four words, tops, as your headline. “Feel the burn?” “No judgmental BS.” And then just have the basic driver …

The driver being the call to action?

Exactly, the driver being “go to this website.” And then, just an image that is really striking that will catch people's attention. So that's what we feel is the magic formula. And what really gets to me is when I see billboards that have like ten words on the billboard, they have a phone number, they have a logo,  they have a website that is 30 characters long. So they kind of just throw up on the billboard with all their messaging. And it's not effective because you have a very limited time to get to the person, and get your message across. You have to keep it simple.