Thirty years ago today, a controversial advert by the then National Advisory Committee on AIDS (NACAIDS) hit the screens of millions of Australians.

The ad depicted the Grim Reaper bowling balls in bowling alley, knocking over ‘pins’ of men, women and children. It struck fear into the hearts of Australians with its claims that AIDS, a recently discovered disease, could kill more citizens than World War II and with its chilling message to viewers: ‘Prevention is the only cure we’ve got’.

Although it was pulled from the airwaves nine weeks into a 12-week campaign, the legacy of the advert remains and it is widely credited with helping spread awareness and education of the issue.

At a time of misinformation, the ad campaign, alongside other efforts by the Australian government, made significant strides in educating the population about the then-mysterious virus.

One of the architects of Australia’s response to the emergence of the AIDS virus, Bill Bowtell, told ABC in 2007 that the advert scared the public into paying attention to what was a huge threat to public health.

He said: “They certainly sat up and took notice, and young people did particularly, it created a great deal of demand for information.”

0.17% of Australians are infected with HIV/AIDS, which is much lower than many other Western countries. For example, the United States, which did very little to tackle the AIDS epidemic under the Reagan administration, has a prevalence rate of 0.6%, one of the highest in the Western world and more comparable to Latin America.

However, the advert was not without its issues. Soon after its broadcast, it garnered controversy among viewers who thought the Grim Reaper figure in the broadcast was meant to represent gay people, who were scapegoated as AIDS first came to prominence. As a result, this led to a significant rise in homophobia in Australia at the time.

Speaking in 2002 to the Australian Associated Press, Dr Ron Penny, who was on the board that approved the advert, expressed regret that the Reaper had been misinterpreted by viewers.
He said: “The downside was that the Grim Reaper became identified with gay men rather than as the Reaper. That was what we had unintentionally produced — [the belief] by some that the Reaper was people with HIV infection, rather than the Reaper harvesting the dead.”

That said, Dr Penny, who diagnosed the first case of AIDS in Australia, still praised the advert for raising awareness and acting as a “wake-up call” for the nation.

He added: “I think there’s never been anything on television or any media that has ever matched it in terms of impact.”

Image: screenshot from advert, NACAIDS