ACT UP NY calls out HBO for commodifying HIV activism while promoting It's A Sin

After an ACT UP button was used in HBO Max's promotion for It's A Sin, the New York group are speaking out against corporations commodifying their activism.


HBO Max have come under fire for using an ACT UP button in their promotion of It’s A Sin without consulting the activist group. 

As a means of promoting It’s A Sin, HBO Max provided people in media with kits, which included a denim jacket decorated with badges referencing HIV activism. However, ACT UP New York has called out the streaming service for using their image without engaging with them. 

On Twitter, ACT UP NY spoke out against HBO Max by writing, “We did not grant permission for you to use our button for some nostalgia TV show promo accessory.”

Social media manager at ACT UP NY, Jason Rosenberg, stated, “This caught me a little off guard. So HBO Max sent influencers It’s a Sin related gifts and slapped on an ACT UP button. 1) We were never asked permission (typically we get these type of requests and vet them on floor) and 2) The series didn’t even mention ACT UP.”

Rosenberg continued to say, “It’s interesting because this was one of my criticisms of the show. The show depicts a protest in London where characters perform a die-in and get brutalized by cops. Protests like this didn’t just magically happen. They happened because of real orgs such as ACT UP London.”

HBO Max’s decision to move forward with this promotional material without consulting the group has sparked online backlash against commodifying HIV activism. Rosenberg shared, “It’s strange to watch ACT UP once again get used as some type of corporate accessory. As if ACT UP doesn’t still exist and HIV isn’t still ongoing. This is how history gets erased and communities get neglected.”

While one recipient of the gift argued it was “well-intended,” numerous people reflected on the problems attached to HBO Max using ACT UP to promote a show that doesn’t involve the group. One member shared, “I, along with other members of ACT UP, have issues with the way that HIV and the AIDS movement is depicted on It’s a Sin and would have preferred to be consulted before having our image used to promote the show.”

On ACT UP NY Twitter, Rosenberg continues to outline why the use of the button in promotional material goes against the group’s core message, “The thing that irks me is that optically it makes it look like ACT UP endorsed this promo and the show which we have done neither. ACT UP is one of the steering orgs of Queer March and have been historically anti-corporate.”

Responding to a separate comment on ACT UP NY’s page, Rosenberg went on to add, “ACT UP has a long history of not partnering with corporations and this looks as if we endorsed the show which we have not. Corporations need to stop commodifying our work and using it as nostalgia.”

There was potential for these platforms to work with activist groups in order to carry conversations started by It’s A Sin even further. After airing on Channel 4, ACT UP Dublin activist, Holly Shortall, reached out to the broadcaster’s inclusion and diversity team, “Harry and I are chatting about how amazing it would be for Channel 4 to insert some public messaging into the It’s A Sin ad breaks about PrEP, knowing your status, U=U etc. With such a captive audience, it’s a big opportunity to raise awareness of these advancements.”

Since It’s A Sin aired, people have been addressing the need to create awareness around current campaigns to fight against discrimination as well as highlight how far the community has come. On Twitter, MPOWER Programme Manager Adam Shanley created an insightful Twitter thread on this topic, stating, “Despite huge advancements in HIV treatment and prevention and the great social progress made in Ireland since the time It’s A Sin is set – stigma and discrimination continues to be experienced by people living with HIV. This needs to change!”

“HIV affects many people. HIV is part of the lives of women, Black people, communities of colour, trans folk, sex workers and more. It’s A Sin is a singular narrative centering on the impact of AIDS on mostly cis white gay men in London. An important story – not the only one,” Shanley continues.

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