A confronting Australian ad campaign intended to raise awareness of HIV in 1987 had a “particularly damaging” effect on the gay community, an inquiry into LGBTIQ hate crimes has been told.
The infamous television ad in the campaign depicted the Grim Reaper bowling down a group of humans – their lifeless bodies dragged away to make room for the next group. It included scared children and a mother clutching onto her baby.
A voiceover said: “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.”
Brent Mackie, the director of policy, strategy and research of LGBTI health organisation ACON, discussed the impact of the ad campaign on Tuesday while giving oral evidence to NSW’s Special Commission of Inquiry into LGBTIQ hate crimes.
The public hearings this week in Sydney examine the social and cultural context in which suspected LGBTIQ hate crime deaths occurred between 1970 and 2010.
Grim Reaper ad campaign (1987).
In a statement to the inquiry, Mr Mackie said the campaign caused many people to see gay men as grim reapers and it “greatly contributed to distress and increased discrimination and stigma towards people living with HIV/AIDS and towards gay men.”
He said the campaign “exaggerated the real threat of infection with AIDS” to the Australian public and shared no information on how HIV was transmitted.
“The campaign contributed to a belief that it was possible to catch HIV from sharing a toothbrush or being spat on, or the like,” Mr Mackie said.
“This poor understanding of HIV transmission contributed to fear and stigma against people with HIV/AIDS and gay men.
“ … As a result of the hysteria whipped by the Grim Reaper campaign, where many people saw gay men as grim reapers, LGBTQ people and especially people living with HIV/AIDS were subjected to increased hate, abuse and, in some cases, violence.”
In the ad the Grim Reaper bowled down a mother clutching on to her baby.Visibly frightened children were shown in the ad.
Mr Mackie also said there was a “massive media response” to the campaign where journalists, commentators and politicians discussed gay men’s sex lives, “often alongside calls for criminalisation, restriction and discrimination.”
Mr Mackie expanded on his statement in front of the inquiry on Tuesday saying it was “pretty devastating” for people with HIV to be represented as grim reapers on the TV.
“For a lot of people in the gay community seeing that campaign scared them,” he said, adding that it deterred people from getting tested.
He said it influenced “a whole lot of hysterical attacks on gay people” and he thinks he remembers there was even a call to have gay men quarantined on an island.
“You have that kind of rhetoric going out in the media and from politicians, it’s going to have an impact then on people on the street and how they understand and relate to gay men,” Mr Mackie said.
When asked if there appeared to be a correlation between media coverage of AIDS and the level of violence, Mr Mackie agreed it “certainly contributed”.
Videos of the ad can be found these days on YouTube and the comments paint a picture of how impactful the commercial was.
“I was 16 when this ad hit the telly in 1987, it felt like the country’s collective stomach turned. This advertising campaign shook Australia to its very core…..like no other ad I can remember,” one person wrote.
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“One of my very first memories of my life. I was 7 and never forgot it. It gave me nightmares,” said another.
The ad was commissioned by the National Advisory Committee on AIDS and was reportedly pulled off air due to media backlash within weeks.