Australia’s Grim Reaper campaign continues to disgust

Published 13, Dec, 2012

Bowling balls from hell: remembering the ultimate AIDS scare campaign from Australia in 1987, with Christopher Banks

The black décor of a bowling alley from hell. 

Pins are mechanically lowered onto a platform, but they’re not bowling pins.  

They are people: very specific kinds of people. White, middle-class heterosexual families – men, women, children. Especially children. A lingering close-up of a blond girl with pigtails, her eyes streaming with tears fill the screen and burns into our retinas with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. 

A gloomy voiceover from Satan himself intones “At first only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS.  But now we know every one of us could be devastated by it.” 

But “we” weren’t.  I think readers know all too well who was being devastated by it in 1987, and who continues to be devastated by it now.  

However, such concerns were not on the minds of the makers of the infamous Grim Reaper TV campaign of 1987, screened on Australian television and forever ingrained in the memories of those who saw it. (Editor's note: see video below. Warning: images may be disturbing) 

Shock campaigning at its very worst, it at least ended with a strong call to action: using condoms, albeit with the woolly addition that you should “stick to one safe partner” (what the hell does that mean?). The tagline, “prevention is the only cure we’ve got” still holds today. 

Watching it now, the overall message about who is it risk and the manner in which it is delivered still disgusts and angers. Right from the first line of the ad, in which gays and IV drug users are consigned to the dustbin of “only”, the implication being that we haven’t had to give a shit about people in our communities dying a horrible death – sons, brothers, fathers – until now, when it might affect poor innocent Pollyanna in her pretty dress. 

Historian Margaret Winn, while acknowledging the positive effects that the campaign had in raising awareness about AIDS across a large population in a very short space of time, also acknowledged the collateral damage that any gay and/or HIV-positive person could see coming a mile away: 

Although the mid-campaign evaluation showed no increased prejudice against AIDS sufferers, the reality was somewhat different. The Anti-Discrimination Board recorded an increase in workplace discrimination and harassment and AIDS clinic staff reported an increased feeling of social ostracism among HIV-infected people. 

What’s more, the campaign saw hordes of “worried well” heterosexuals who had absolutely zero risk of HIV infection rushing to get tested, to the point where labs couldn’t cope with the extra testing work. The one group whose testing rates did not increase, but in fact declined, were gay men. The very group who needed to be tested. 

The discussion thread on my friend’s Facebook wall became quite heated when I weighed in.  There are some gay men who seem to remember the Grim Reaper campaign with fondness, despite the fact it scared the living bejesus out of them.

It's not horrible & disgusting,” said one. “At first in the early 80's, AIDS was believed to be infecting only gays and IV drug users. That is a fact.  There was a general apathy in the rest of the community as to the risk to them and a polite message was not working, so the shock tactics of the Grim Reaper was used.  At that time, there was no treatment methods, so prevention was the only tactic.  And what was the result, Australia was one of the least affected countries in the world.”

This lack of acknowledgement around epidemiological reality continues today. HIV in the Western world is a gay man’s disease.  This is a fact, and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging this any more than there is a problem with acknowledging that breast cancer overwhelmingly affects women. It is only the blame and shame that comes connected with HIV that stops many of us from accepting this fact, and whitewashing HIV as the all-inclusive virus of the 21st century so we don’t have to think about it in our midst. 

Australia’s efforts in keeping HIV prevalence low has nothing to do with the Grim Reaper campaign.  As with New Zealand (whose rates were and continue to be even lower, and where no shock campaigns were used) were due to tireless efforts behind the scenes by activists and health professionals in our own communities who fought for adequate funding of prevention campaigns and education to target us, care for us when we were sick and dying, and ultimately make us feel good about having sex again. 

The Grim Reaper campaign did none of those things, except to win awards for the artistic “brilliance” of the ad creatives behind it.  No doubt much champagne was drunk over those meaningless bits of plastic. 

Meanwhile, gay men were dying in hospitals with their lungs collapsing while the cute little girl continued to play happily in her back yard, oblivious to it all.