A slightly edited version of this piece first appeared in The Age
It lasted only 60 seconds and ran for just three weeks. But 25 years later, we’re still talking about it. The most famous ad in Australia’s history: AIDS and the Grim Reaper.
It terrified nearly everyone. A Gothic Grim Reaper, all tattered robes and decaying flesh, incongruously striking men, women and children dead with bowling balls as they’re lined up as human pins. It’s macabre, almost surreal. At one point Death breaks his impassivity to hiss triumphantly when he picks up a spare—a single mother and her child. Meanwhile, a narrator solemnly describes a forecast AIDS epidemic. It sounds a lot like a coming apocalypse.
It left a generation of baby boomers peering anxiously over their shoulders to the Sixties—what the hell had our spirited unorthodoxy sown? While some wrestled with the metaphor of Pandora’s Box, others applied the Biblical images of plagues visited upon the wicked.
For those who had thought the virus affected only “poofters, junkies and whores”, the commercial inspired a collective sense of vulnerability, even panic. Everyone was at risk; complacency could be fatal. These were strange times—only a few weeks before the commercial first aired, the Daily Mail ran the headline “AIDS is a potential holocaust” while the Newcastle Herald was celebrating the condom as an “instrument of national salvation”.
At least we were ahead of America: Reagan had largely ignored the issue, and arguably it wasn’t until 1991 when basketball star Magic Johnson announced he was HIV+ that Americans really grasped that the virus could strike anyone. But the debate lingered: was the Australian Government generating hysteria?
I was only six at the time, but remember being scared witless. If this seems implausible, remember that our memories are very often strengthened by trauma. My very memory of that time and of the strange murmurings of my parents seems like powerful testimony of the ad’s punch.
The ad would shape me in other ways. A few years later, as a result of the inappropriate attentions of a neighbour, I would believe, incorrectly and naively, that I had AIDS. I was 9 or 10 years old. Too scared and ashamed to speak to any adult, I navigated the choppy waters of AIDS, sex and death by popular culture and playground gossip. Thinking I was dying, my guiding stars were the Grim Reaper commercial, Magic Johnson’s announcement and whatever nonsense was whispered behind the school bike shed.
There were other unintended consequences of the ad’s power. Some viewers had interpreted the Grim Reaper not simply as death, but as gay men, their lascivious immorality now contaminating the broader blood supply. Dr. Ron Penny, who diagnosed Australia’s first case of HIV, would later say: “The downside was that the Grim Reaper became associated with gay men rather than as the Reaper. That was what we had unintentionally produced.”
But HIV infection rates fell. Peaking at 2,400 new infections in 1987, the year of the Grim Reaper, they steadily fell to its lowest point of 718 new infections in 1999. The figure has, unfortunately, gone upwards again where it’s steady at about 1,000 new infections a year, but it’s still a long way off the grim zenith of ’87. By international standards our infection rates are very low.
It’s impossible to precisely determine the efficacy of the Grim Reaper commercial, given it was part of a much larger program of prevention and education. We never came close to experiencing the infection rates it predicted. Is that because the ad helped prevent them, or because its dire predictions were wildly overheated?
It’s possible it’s both. What we do know is that the Australian Government’s AIDS program—of which this commercial was a part—is still commended today for its pragmatism, responsiveness, creativity and effectiveness. America saw the world as it would like it to be, Australia saw it as it was. Today, 0.1% of Australians are infected with HIV/AIDS, compared to the United States’ much higher rate of 0.6%. (Let’s put this in perspective: in Swaziland and Botswana the figure is 25%.)
The ad still inspires strong feelings. Many of those involved in its making still defend the commercial as strong, plain speak—the perfect antidote to heterosexual complacency. There’s a rough application of utility here—stoking fear was put in the service of a greater good. The end justified the means.
Responding many years later to the argument that the commercial misrepresented the facts, former Health Minister Neal Blewett—the face of the national AIDS program at the time—said he’d rather have had that attack than one about the government’s hesitancy or ineffectiveness.
Others still find it divisive, terrifying, misleading. “The most repulsive bit of advertising I’ve ever seen” one writer told me. While the ad raised the question: how far should governments go in affecting the behaviour of its citizens? it answered the question of whether fear could ever be effective in advertising.