Mark Nowacki knows what it's like to be at death's door. Four times since 1996, when he was diagnosed with AIDS, he says he's been told, "You're going to die in the next four to six months and there's nothing you can do about it." That's why the decision of Madison's AIDS Network to enter a promotion with Death's Door Spirits upsets him.
"It is probably the most insensitive thing I've ever seen," says Nowacki, a client of AIDS Network. "I feel as though I'm being mocked and taunted."
Death's Door Spirits, based in Door County with offices in Madison, is sponsoring an AIDS Network contest to create a new cocktail. Contestants have until Oct. 1 to submit an original drink recipe. A winner will be picked Oct. 20 at the Madison-area Food and Wine Show. And the winning cocktail will be served Wednesday, Nov. 28, at AIDS Network's annual Extra Helping event, where participating restaurants donate a portion of that day's sales.
Besides the vodka company's name, Nowacki objects to encouraging people to consume alcohol to support the cause, given the correlation between HIV/AIDS and substance abuse.
"When you get drunk, you lose your inhibitions, take risks you normally wouldn't," says Nowacki. He adds, with commendable honesty, "I'm sure I acquired AIDS through bad judgment."
Others share his objections. One member of the AIDS Network board of directors, who didn't want to be named criticizing the group, has no problem with the liquor company's product and commends its civic-minded reputation. But he thinks AIDS Network should have not inked the deal.
"We made a very poor choice accepting their offer," the board member says. "It's counterproductive to have a sponsor with this name associated with our affair."
Another board member, who also didn't want to be named, agrees the move "shows incredible insensitivity to the clients we serve."
Brian Ellison, brand manager of Death's Door Spirits, notes that the company's name comes from a treacherous waterway. He says some board members have seen commonality with HIV/AIDS, in that people are prone to making false assumptions: "Both of our organizations are misunderstood."
Bob Power, executive director of AIDS Network, says the sponsorship does not involve a cash contribution, but rather supplies for the events and help with advertising.
"We certainly apologize if anybody has been offended," says Power. "That clearly wasn't our intent. Our intent was to help raise money and awareness for the agency. In hindsight, perhaps it was a poor choice for an AIDS organization."