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Clear Channel pulls the plug on an AIDS-prevention campaign.

Visual AIDS: Clear Channel isn't buying the - Taskforce's ad campaign, which features giant - condoms and work by Cleveland artists.
  • Visual AIDS: Clear Channel isn't buying the Taskforce's ad campaign, which features giant condoms and work by Cleveland artists.
In a drawing lifted from a '50s-era first-aid manual, a businessman in a white shirt and dress slacks performs the Heimlich maneuver on another, similarly dressed man.

On second thought, though, maybe that's not what they're doing. They could be longtime lovers locked in an odd embrace. They could have cut short their three-martini lunch to have simulated sex in the men's room.

The drawing is the central image on a safe-sex billboard that was scheduled to go up near the west Shoreway a few weeks ago. Designed by Cleveland printmaker Liz Maugans, it targets young gay and bisexual men who have unprotected sex. "Express Yourself. Protect Yourself," reads its caption. It's one of nine artist-designed billboards in a series called Art Action AIDS.

But it won't be on display after all, because when the billboard company got wind of it, the higher-ups said no way. An international media superpower, Clear Channel owns half the radio stations and pretty much all the billboards in town, having quietly purchased Cleveland's predominant outdoor advertising company, Eller Media. It didn't matter that other medium-sized Midwestern cities had met success with even riskier billboards. Clear Channel wouldn't take a chance.

Those whose long-term memory hasn't done time in the deep fryer might remember Clear Channel's post-September 11 "do-not-play list," which declared a moratorium on "Walk Like an Egyptian," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," and 148 other tunes it deemed offensive.

Might it not have been braver to condone an audacious ad campaign against an epidemic that has claimed far more lives than any single-day disaster?

Clear Channel also refused to gamble on an alternate design Maugans submitted, which featured an instructional drawing from a 1950s wrestling handbook. The image, which shows two strongmen enmeshed in a regulation grapple, went over like a titanium dildo with Clear Channel execs, even though the athletes are fully clothed.

Perhaps the homoerotic take on sports imagery was deemed too threatening to the sacred preserve of manly manness. "It's not even some sort of crotch hold they're doing," comments John Chaich, coordinator of the billboard project for the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland.

The Taskforce planned to shell out big bucks for the billboards, courtesy of a city grant, but money apparently wasn't an issue. "We reserve the right to cancel any contract," was all Clear Channel spokesman Dave Yale would say on the matter.

The design will still appear on 20,000 postcards the Taskforce is distributing for its annual Dancin' in the Streets bash, which takes place along downtown streets this weekend. Unlike red ribbons, the postcards speak specifically to gay men: "Hey buddy, we're talking to YOU for once. Wear a condom."

Straight folk aren't left out of the fun, either. Maugans's sexually charged tweaking of squeaky-clean pages from the Eisenhower era is something anybody who grew up watching Ozzie and Harriet reruns can relate to. Yet the sexual punning is subtle enough that parents don't have to worry about shielding the eyes of their wee passengers, as they do with the big, blond, braless sisters in Coors beer's "Here's to Twins" billboards.

By censoring the AIDS billboard but allowing the twins, Clear Channel sends the message that sex is OK for selling booze, but not for selling safe sex. "It continues to surprise me that after 17 years of AIDS, the worst epidemic in human history, we still find it difficult to talk about behaviors that transmit the virus," says Earl Pike, head of the AIDS Taskforce. "And these are behaviors that most of society engages in. We have to get past our discomfort. "I think [Clear Channel] is backing down for all the wrong reasons."

A mother of two young children, Maugans says that she strives for an innocence and buoyancy in her work. "'Oh, this looks pretty and nice.' But then comes a certain kind of pinprick, an undercurrent that you're not just an innocent spectator anymore."

Though she is straight, Maugans often addresses gay themes in her work. "It comes from knowing a lot of gay men and women who have to stifle who they are and who they love," she says. "It breaks my heart. And it's something that really motivates me."

A similar billboard project in St. Louis was taken down shortly after it went up, after an attack by that city's mayor. That hasn't happened in Cleveland. The Taskforce has received only support from Mayor Jane Campbell's administration, which funded the billboard project with grant money and didn't meddle in the creative process. "I'm very proud of the city," says Chaich, who never dreamed that propriety would get in the way of big business.

Four other billboards have already come and gone without much fuss, including one by Cleveland artist Douglas Lucak that featured poster-sized photographs of men's nipples. The nipples made it past Clear Channel censors, but were deliberately blurred by Channel 5 for a story on the 11 o'clock news.

Four remaining designs are still scheduled to appear along Cleveland highways in the next year. "What I'm absolutely clear about is, we're not gonna change our billboards so that they can meet vaguely defined standards so we can get them up there," says Pike. "We'll continue to do what we think is right in getting the message to the target population." If those get censored, too, maybe they could try airlifting a giant condom over the peak of the Terminal Tower.

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