amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Media Maverick Comes Up on a Decade at the Helm of amfAR

The TREAT Asia Report Interview: amfAR Chairman of the Board Kenneth Cole

Kenneth Cole first joined amfAR’s Board of Trustees in 1987 and became chairman of the board on World AIDS Day 2004. He is also founder and chairman of the fashion house Kenneth Cole Productions, which began using provocative media campaigns to promote HIV awareness and combat stigma in the 1980s. TREAT Asia  talked with Cole about those early days of spreading  awareness, how social media can increase the global impact of HIV education  campaigns, amfAR’s work in Asia, and its new Countdown to a Cure initiative.

Kenneth Cole Headshot TREATamfAR Chairman of the Board Kenneth Cole.TREAT Asia Report: Kenneth Cole Productions was a pioneer in using media campaigns to promote a social message. How did you decide to dedicate your advertising resources to promoting HIV awareness and fighting stigma and discrimination?

Kenneth Cole: In 1985, due to stigma, AIDS was on everyone’s minds, but few people’s lips. President Ronald Reagan didn’t explicitly address the subject until 1987. So I decided if I could use my limited resources to talk about the fact that no one was talking about AIDS, it could perhaps resonate in a meaningful and powerful way.

So that’s what I did. I reached out to other people in the fashion industry, including iconic individuals like photographer Annie Leibovitz and some of the most famous models of the time, like Christie Brinkley. And everyone came together and lent themselves and their time to this greater message. It transformed me as an individual and as a brand and company, and sent me down a road that I have stayed on ever since.

TA Report: What do you think were your most effective HIV awareness campaigns, and what strategies did you use to maximize their effectiveness?

Cole: The question is, how do you break through to engage people in a meaningful way. The answer is to provoke, and the bottom line is, the more unique it is from anything done before, the more likely it is to grab people’s attention. A strategy I’ve often used over the years is to use a phrase or image that seems kind of innocent, but when you look more closely it definitely isn’t. One of my favorite campaigns that did that said, “Latest AIDS Statistic: 0,000,000 Cured.”  

In 1996, we did an “If” campaign about people assumed to be immune to this pervasive virus. We had slogans like: “If your mother had AIDS, she’d have to worry about more than clean socks.” “If the President had AIDS, he’d have to worry about more than your vote.” And ultimately, “If the Pope had AIDS, he’d have to worry about more than your prayers.” We decided not to run the last one, but at the press conference launching the campaign, I shared the ads that would be running as well as the ones that wouldn’t, and it was that ad about the Pope that got picked up in all the tabloids and got the most publicity.

cole and bus ad
Kenneth Cole and amfAR Founding Chairman Dr. Mathilde Krim unveil a new awareness campaign in 1994.

When I launched my first campaign it was a huge risk due to the stigma, and I was prepared for some backlash, but didn’t receive any. I’m sure we’ve lost some customers over the years, but I think ultimately, we’ve gained more customers than we’ve lost using our ad campaigns to promote amfAR and HIV awareness.

TA Report: In many populations and areas, the highest rates of new infections are among people under 25, including gay men and other men who have sex with men in many parts of Asia. How could we better use media campaigns to reach them with information about HIV, encourage them to get tested, and fight stigma and discrimination within their communities?

Cole: Today, we’re living in a viral universe, and the social media that exists now has the ability to connect with more people than you ever could before, in ways you never could before. Social media a very powerful resource and a very powerful tool, and we need to learn how to leverage it to the best of our capabilities to fight HIV. It needs to be part of every HIV response aiming to connect with younger audiences.  

TA Report: amfAR recently launched its Countdown to a Cure initiative (C2C), setting an ambitious target of establishing the scientific basis for a cure for HIV by 2020. Why did you and amfAR’s Board feel that this was the right time to launch that campaign?

Cole: This is a very powerful moment. amfAR-funded research played an important part in the recent cases of two individuals who have been cured of HIV, and we’ve made significant progress towards having a clear sense of what has to happen for us to have a cure for the 35 million people living with this virus. The fact is we won’t find something we’re not actively looking for. And we’re not going to find it today if we don’t start looking until tomorrow. So we elevated our commitment to finding a cure and created a deadline. It’s ambitious, but I think if we roll up our sleeves and energize the will to bring this epidemic to an end, not only within amfAR, but in Washington and elsewhere, we can do something that is truly transformative and help make AIDS history.

Cole visits with children at New Hope for Cambodian Children.

TA Report: You have visited the TREAT Asia offices and some of its partner sites. Could you describe the work you saw and the impact it was having on people’s lives?

Cole: When I visited the TREAT Asia office, I was very moved by the energized, dedicated, and devoted young staff. There was a very profound sense that by marrying research, education, and advocacy— which TREAT Asia does, their work is improving HIV treatment at healthcare facilities throughout the region, improving national HIV protocols, and positively impacting many lives.

I was particularly moved by the work of TREAT Asia’s partner organization, New Hope for Cambodian Children, and their extraordinary story. John and Kathy Tucker, who founded the organization, are two individuals from Texas whose kids had left the nest and who looked at each other and said, ‘Where should we go and what should we do.’ They read about the Mother Theresa Network and asked themselves, ‘How do we make a difference with the resources we have’—the greatest of which are their passion and commitment.

Then they set up this home in Cambodia for orphaned or abandoned children living with HIV. In addition to getting the medical and social support they need, the children are growing up with a peer group similar to themselves and are not cast out because of their HIV status, which happens in many communities. The organization also provides care and social support to HIV-positive children in the surrounding community. It’s a very touching experience being there and holding these children’s hands and engaging with them and seeing their appreciation for what is being made available to them.

TA ReportYou have been on the board of amfAR for 25 years. What amfAR accomplishments have been most exciting to you?

Cole: The needs of people living with HIV cannot be addressed without research, and amfAR is one of the few organizations dedicated to supporting that research. We also advocate for research funding and for policies based on science. In 2010, we created the amfAR Research Consortium on HIV Eradication (ARCHE). ARCHE brings together scientists and funds them to do collaborative cure research, and it was that collaborative approach that led to the breakthroughs that caused us to launch C2C. This is a very exciting research initiative that I believe will really help accelerate our search for a cure.

From amfAR’s support of the 1990 Ryan White Care Act—which provides healthcare to hundreds of thousands of low-income, uninsured, and under-insured people living with HIV in the U.S.—to the creation of ARCHE, amfAR has played an important role throughout the journey to this exciting moment. I’ve had the privilege of being there and supporting its work for much of that time.