Not someone you want to go bowling with...

Twenty-five years ago today the Grim Reaper appeared on Australian television to warn us about the dangers of HIV. You can see the ad through this article about the anniversary. I was 14 at the time, and it was truly terrifying. I think it did its job, and scared Australians into sexual responsibility, though now that we have treatments and testing and the like, people may be beginning to become complacent again. Although it now seems a bit hammy, I think it also compares favourably with British health and safety adverts – it’s not as tacky, and makes its point much more succinctly and believably. I particularly like the nod to the holocaust when the narrator says it could kill more people than world war 2 – a nice touch, very understated but very effective.

There was some controversy at the time, because some people interpreted it as likening gay men to the Grim Reaper (at that time it was largely a disease of gay men), but unlike in the USA there was a much better relationship between government, health workers and gay activists, and the controversy didn’t damage the ad’s effectiveness. Of course now people think that the kinds of things being said in this advert were hyperbolic or alarmist, because Australia has largely escaped the problem of HIV – another complaint made at the time was that this ad was overdoing it, and would contribute to that general suspicion people have that government health messages are just intended to scare us. But take one look at the situation in Africa and it’s clear that Australia dodged a very, very scary epidemic, and with our large drug-using population it was possible that HIV could have crossed to the heterosexual population by the early 1990s. It didn’t, and we can thank Australia’s early and very impressive response for our very lucky escape. Part of that response was this cute guy with his scythe and his slightly tatty cape, and we Australians should all be thankful for whatever small part he played in keeping us safe. So, thanks and … happy birthday Grim Reaper! If you get laid at your party, remember that prevention is the only cure we’ve got!

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