With the calls for new COVID vaccine ads, what can we learn from previous campaigns?


Public health experts are calling for an urgent rethink of the public awareness campaign linked to the deployment of the coronavirus vaccine in Australia.

Some look to the effectiveness of the infamous Grim Reaper HIV / AIDS campaign of the 1980s.

But not everyone is convinced. The leading support organization for people living with HIV said the Grim Reaper campaign has marginalized the LGBT community.

A third of Australians hesitate to get vaccinated

Since the start of the COVID-19 deployment in the country in February, only 13% of the population have rolled up their sleeves.

A recent survey conducted by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald found that nearly a third of Australians probably wouldn’t get the hang of it.

With less than 13% of Australia’s adult population vaccinated, does the country need a new advertising campaign?(



And with reports of over a million unused doses hitting the headlines in recent days, calls have been made for a more effective awareness campaign to ensure Australians receive their COVID vaccines- 19.

Bill Bowtell, who led public health messages on HIV / AIDS, believes that a major publicity campaign to convince reluctant Australians to receive the vaccine is paramount.

He said the Grim Reaper campaign he helped produce from the ’80s was very memorable and impactful.

“It was also one of the many campaigns that circulated and were generated at the time in the most affected communities, among the general public, advocating for behavior change,” Bowtell said. at ABC News Breakfast.

Bill Bowtell was the architect of Australia's successful and beloved response to HIV / AIDS.
Bill Bowtell believes top Australians should be at the forefront of any COVID vaccination campaign – not politicians.(

ABC News: Daniel Close


He thinks it was effective because politicians were nowhere to be found, which was a deliberate choice.

“Because politicians are not the people we need to get the vaccination message across in Australia now.

“I wish we had a [vaccine] but we had to promote behavior change and it was a very difficult sale. “

But the campaign has also been criticized for provoking fear and hostility towards members of Australia’s LGBT communities and people with HIV.

The Grim Reaper ad campaign ran over a three week period in 1987 with the line:

At first, only homosexuals and intravenous drug users were killed by AIDS.

But now we know that each of us could be devastated.

Grim Reaper Announcement
The Grim Reaper was used in a controversial 1987 television commercial to warn people of the danger of AIDS.(



Professor immunologist Ron Penny, who treated Australia’s first case of HIV, said in hindsight that the Grim Reaper ad unintentionally marginalized gay men, something he later regretted.

“The downside was that the Grim Reaper identified with gay men rather than the Reaper. This is what we unintentionally produced, [the belief] by some that the Reaper was people infected with HIV, rather than the Reaper reaping the dead. “

A communication style that appeals to fear

Tom van Laer is Associate Professor of Narratology at the University of Sydney.

He said health communication campaigns around HIV / AIDS used what is called a “fear call” to try to scare the public into practicing safer sex.

Dr van Laer said it wasn’t until the early 2000s that academics studying persuasion and communication discovered huge mistakes were made in these fear appeals.

Dr Tom van Laer of the University of Sydney.
Dr Tom van Laer is an ad hoc consultant for M&C Saatchi who creates the COVID-19 communication campaigns for Vic Health.(

Credit: Louise Cooper


“He didn’t even tell people, that’s what you have to do.”

He explains that if the fear is too high, the public may go into something like a mode of protection and deny that they might be affected by the disease.

He believes that the only way a fear appeal can work to change people’s behavior is for the fear to be moderate, not extreme.

“And that’s exactly what happened in the ’80s. It’s like, oh, well, it’s just LGBTQIA + people, it’s gays… that doesn’t apply to us. It’s a gay disease.

How has the Grim Reaper announcement affected LGBT groups?

David Menadue was among the first in Australia to become HIV positive in the early 1980s.

He believes one of the biggest problems with the ad was that the Grim Reaper’s death gaze mirrored some of the most serious experiences of those who suffered from the disease.

“A lot of people with HIV looked a bit deadly and a bit cadaverous because they were losing a lot of muscle and facial fat and fat,” he said.

David Menadue was one of the first people to be diagnosed with HIV in Australia.
David Menadue remembers being forced out of gay bars in the 1980s after the Grim Reaper HIV / AIDs ad was published.(



Mr. Menadue is firm in his belief that the Grim Reaper was a mistake.

“Some people thought it awakened them to the reality of HIV, and [they] took it more seriously after that. But in my opinion, if you want to scare people off, that’s not always a particularly healthy response, ”he said.

“You get people, when they act out of fear they sometimes behave irrational. And that’s what happened with responses to HIV, especially how we feel after 1987.”

Mr. Menadue said that after the announcement people were afraid of people with HIV. He said it changed his life.

He recalls being told to quit a gay bar in the late 1980s because he had HIV and the growing pressure on the gay community from the Grim Reaper campaign.

“They started resenting us because they thought we were bringing all this bad name to the gay community,” he said.

“I’ve been through things in gay bars where people come to me and ask me to leave.”

“It was at the end of the 80s that people didn’t know any better, and I refused to leave. And I had a bunch of supportive friends around me, they told the guy but that’s the kind of thing that happened to people, horrible things. “

Stigma persists for decades

Aaron Cogle, Executive Director of the National Association of People with HIV Australia, believes that we have learned a lot since the 1980s that can help us refine the campaign messages.

“Marginalized communities often bear the heaviest burden of disease epidemics due to social inequalities,” he said.

Aaron Cogle is the executive director of the National Association of People Living with HIV in Australia.
Mr Cogle believes marginalized communities often bear the heaviest burden of disease epidemics because of social inequalities.(

Provided: NAPWHA


He believes that campaigns that stigmatize particular communities as leaders reinforce social exclusion. Mr Cogle said stigma makes epidemics harder to fight.

“We need people to be able to trust their health care providers and come forward for tests, vaccinations and treatment, if necessary. Stigmatizing and blaming communities creates an environment where people cannot do this. without fear for their safety. “

A report from last year found that gay and bisexual men are still having to deal with stigma.

This despite the fact that only 5 percent of study participants were HIV positive, while over 70 percent said they were stigmatized because of their suspected risk of contracting HIV.

A community-led public health approach

Mr. Menadue believes that subsequent government HIV / AIDS campaigns have been far more successful than Grim Reaper’s initial announcement.

The federal government at the time was working in collaboration with community groups on HIV / AIDS, health professionals and researchers.

The government has put in place measures such as universal and anonymous HIV / AIDS testing, educational campaigns in consultation with the public and high-risk groups, greater promotion of condom use and protection programs. sexual.

He welcomed these latest approaches from former Federal Health Minister Neal Blewett and Councilor Bowtell.

He believes there has been a greater effort to involve community leaders and affected groups in the public health response.

“The next campaign the government took part in was a bed campaign,” he said.


“There was maybe 50 beds on the screen. And there was a couple in the bed and he was like, now if you’ve slept with someone recently, unprotected, how do you know where these people have. slept before? “

Mr Mendaue said the campaign highlighted the risk of having unprotected sex, which the Grim Reaper campaign did not.

“The problem with that was it scared everyone, but it didn’t follow through, that’s what you need to protect yourself from HIV.”

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