ACT goes ‘incognito’ to urge anonymous HIV testing

The Toronto non-profit puts banner ads on sites popularly visited in private mode to encourage people to get tested.


Just over 50% of people living with HIV/AIDS in Canada identify as gay or bisexual men, according to data from The Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE), a national organization that pulls together data about HIV/AIDS and sexual health.

Yet over 20% of that group of men don’t get tested as often as they should out of fear of being judged or having the test show up on their medical records, according to Toronto-based ACT, the organization formerly known as the AIDS Committee of Toronto, which also uses data from Toronto Public Health and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care.

So to help men who identify as LGBTQ+ feel more comfortable getting tested, ACT launched a campaign during Pride month to let people know HIV testing can be done anonymously.

Working with Bimm, it developed banner ads encouraging people on Google Chrome’s Incognito mode to get anonymous testing for HIV. The ads were posted on target sites popularly visited using the search engine’s private browsing mode, which disables search history and the web cache, giving users increased privacy while searching for content online. Those who clicked on the ads were brought to a landing page listing all anonymous HIV testing clinics in Toronto.

“As an agency that is very sex-positive, we need to be in sexually charged spaces, because that is where conversations around sexual health are most relevant,” says Ryan Lisk, ACT’s director of community health programs, who oversees campaign development, outreach and sexual health education at the organizaation. “For us, it feels like a natural link.”

While a lot of other companies concerned about brand safety avoid having their ads appear alongside pornographic or adult-related content, ACT has being do so for many years in order to “reach people who are in a sexualized space or potentially seeking sex so that we can keep sexual health top-of-mind,” Lisk rays. The campaign “felt like a tailored response to the kind of things we were looking to do.”

While Incognito can be used for a variety of tasks where remaining under the radar is important, such as finding a birthday present for a partner, Incognito is often used while surfing porn, hookup or cheating sites, according to Rene Rouleau, VP and Creative Director at Bimm.

Its features are touted as beneficial to the pro-privacy camp but pose an obstacle for advertisers hoping to reach a specific audience, Rouleau says. The whole purpose of going Incognito, after all, is to remain discreet, both to other people and to advertisers. Posting the ads on websites frequently browsed in Incognito mode, including 50 different porn, dating and hookup apps, was the only way to work around the targeting limitations of Incognito, he says.

The campaign launched on June 16 and ran through this weekend’s Pride Parade in Toronto.

While anonymous testing has been around for many years, Lisk says notes it is still not offered everywhere. ACT realized many people remain concerned about getting tested by a regular doctor after during its own HIV-testing pilot earlier  this year, Lisk says.ACT-2