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The “devastating” impact of the Grim Reaper AIDS campaign

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The “devastating” impact of the Grim Reaper AIDS campaign


Australia’s indelible 1987 ‘Grim Reaper’ campaign aimed at raising public awareness about AIDS contributed to violence against the LGBTQIA+ community, a New South Wales inquiry has heard.

During the Special Commission of Inquiry into LGBTIQ hate crimes yesterday, Brent Mackie of the LGBTQIA+ community organisation ACON said that, in his and others’ opinions, the campaign was “particularly damaging for a range of people within the gay community”.

“As a result of the hysteria whipped up 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 increased violence,” his statement read.

The Grim Reaper TVC

Anyone who was alive to see the original TVC is likely to remember its haunting and heavy-handed message.

“At first, only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS,” the ad begins, as a line up of frightened people are lowered like bowling pins at the end of a foggy lane to the sound of a ticking clock.

“But now we know every one of us could be devastated by it.” 

A hooded grim reaper proceeds to roll a bowling ball and knock them down pale, delighting in his final strike against a woman and her child.

“The fact is over 50,000 men, women and children now carry the AIDS virus, that in three years nearly 2000 of us will be dead, that if not stopped, it could kill more Australians than World War Two,” the ad warned its viewers.

The ad, which was commissioned by the National Advisory Committee on AIDS (NACAIDS), with creative by Siimon Reynolds, reportedly received so much backlash it was axed after only three weeks.

Despite its short run, the campaign “still resonates in the Australian psyche today”, according to Mackie.

“It was very much about putting HIV/AIDs on the agenda in the broader public’s mind, and also on the political agenda as being a significant health threat,” he said during the inquiry.

ACON was established in 1985 as the AIDS Council of New South Wales. Its early years were defined by responding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in NSW – and it continues to specialise in HIV prevention today.

Mackie is ACON’s director of policy, strategy and research, and also told the inquiry of personal experiences of violence against him in the 1980s.

Although he said stigmatising media coverage of HIV/AIDS was not the “sole reason” for such attacks on gay people, it “certainly contributed”.

The Grim Reaper campaign also failed to encourage people to get a HIV test, particularly in a context where few treatments were available.

“For a lot of people in the gay community, seeing that campaign scared them. They wouldn’t go and get tested because of the horrificness of the images and certainly if you thought you were HIV positive, you would think twice about necessarily going to get tested,” he said.

What should have been in the ad?

Mackie lamented the lack of health information actually shared with Australians in the NACAIDS’ campaign.

“The campaign didn’t come with a lot of information about how you got HIV, how it could be transmitted or what you could do if you were HIV positive. It was about just making people aware that this thing existed, but what do you do once you think you might have contracted HIV? Or what do you do to prevent it? It didn’t tell you to use condoms,” he said.

The ad actually does explicitly end on the line “always use condoms, always”, contrary to Mackie’s comments.

Although the Grim Reaper ad was memorable, this fear-based public health campaign may have caught vulnerable communities in the crossfire.

“It was pretty devastating if you had HIV to be represented like this on TV,” said Mackie.


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