A social marketing campaign urging gay and bisexual men in San Francisco to get checked for syphilis has been branded a success.

Cartoons advocating the tests were placed in a gay newspaper, and poster-sized reproductions were posted on the streets, on bus shelters, on Webs sites and in gay bars.

In the cartoons, an affable penis interacts with an angry, red, roundish character named Phil the Syphilis Sore. Like the proverbial red devil on one’s shoulder, Phil is a bad influence.

In one cartoon, reports the San Mateo County Times, Phil and his friends pose as the Fab Five from the cable television reality show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” to infiltrate the annual Halloween party held in the Castro District.

The researchers, led by Katherine Ahrens of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, conducted two surveys — one at six months and one at 2.5 years after the campaign had begun. Gay and bisexual men were asked whether they were aware of the cartoons and about their sexual health.

Ahrens and colleagues found the men who were aware of the cartoons were more likely than those unaware to have been tested recently for syphilis and to have greater knowledge about it. This effect was sustained for almost three years, according to evaluations published in PLoS Medicine.

“The social marketing campaign was effective in augmenting syphilis testing and increasing syphilis awareness and knowledge in the San Francisco gay and bisexual community,” the authors said in a media statement.

“This effect might have contributed to decreased syphilis incidence in 2005.”

The campaign, which ran through 2005, gained national attention and was featured on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

“We took a risk, and that risk paid off,” said Jacqueline McCright, community-based sexually transmitted diseases services manager with the city’s Department of Public Health.

© 2006 GayWired.com; All Rights Reserved.