TORONTO — A Toronto-based HIV-AIDS hospital is pushing to dispel stigma about the disease with a little help from "Friends."
As part of its sitcom-inspired #SmashStigma campaign, Casey House has released two edited episodes of "Friends" and "The Office" featuring new plotlines that revolve around HIV.
In "Losing Friends," Chandler's diagnosis strains his friendship with Joey, while "The Toxic Office" shows manager Michael disclosing an employee's HIV-positive status to his co-workers.
The episodes show characters confronting myths about HIV, including unfounded fears that the virus can be transmitted through touching, sharing a living space and other forms of casual contact.
"One of the things we wanted to do is sort of harness the power of pop culture use that to change perceptions," said Joseph Bonnici, executive creative director of ad agency Bensimon Byrne.
"When you look at 'Friends,' it really tackles amazing bonds and friendships. When you look at 'The Office,' it talks about workplace dynamics. And those are two of the places where stigma most clearly rears its ugly head."
Bonnici said a creative team combed through hours of sitcom episodes to find scenes that could be retrofitted to tell stories of stigmatization based on the real-life experiences of people with HIV.
Enlisiting the help of volunteers, Bonnici said voice impersonators were cast to perform the new dialogue, which was synched with the mouth movements of character look-alikes acting in front of green screens. These vocals and visuals were then inserted into existing footage through post-production techniques, he said.
Each short begins with a disclaimer warning the viewer that they're not about to watch a "real episode" of "Friends" or "The Office," and the videos are intended for "the sole, limited and express purpose of using pop culture to educate."
Bonnici said the creators of the campaign didn't seek permission to use the TV shows, but he's optimistic the copyright holders will be able to get on board.
There are very few depictions of people living with HIV in mainstream media, he said, and seeing that kind of representation in two of the most popular TV shows would send a powerful message.
"Obviously, we're going to abide by any of (the copyrighter holders') wishes," he said. "We're just really hopeful that they want to support this cause."
AT&T's WarnerMedia, which owns "Friends," and NBCUniversal, which owns "The Office," did not immediately return requests for comment.
In previous years, Casey House has hosted #SmashStigma pop-ups such as an eatery and a spa staffed by HIV-positive volunteers.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2020.