A distressing new ad from the Federal government which started playing on screens on Sunday night has people comparing the clip to the 80’s HIV/AIDS Grim Reaper ad.  The Grim Reaper ad played in Australia for six weeks in April 1987 and scared the absolute poop out of at least one generation.

The new COVID-19 campaign, includes a short clip with footage of a young woman struggling to breathe with tubes attached to their nose, the haunting beep of heart monitors keeping time and the actor doing a great job of showing distress with both the inability to draw breath and the fact that tubes are required to do that thing that we usually take for granted.

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said in a press conference on Sunday that the ad was designed to make three messages very clear, “stay at home, get tested, and book in for a vaccination. They’re the three messages on that ad, so watch out for that. It is quite graphic, and it’s meant to be graphic.”

It didn’t take long for the comparisons to the 80’s HIV/AIDS Grim Reaper ad to start coming with some commentators pointing out the Grim Reaper campaign caused stigma for people living with HIV/AIDS at the time and others upset with the depiction of care that people suffering from covid might be receiving in Australian hospitals. 

Fear Vs Community-Led Response

“There has been a lot of debate recently around the Grim reaper campaign of the 1980’s with leaders from both parties of the political isle calling for a similar campaign for Covid-19,” said Richard Keane, Chief Executive Officer, Living Positive Victoria.

“Prior to effective anti-retroviral treatments for HIV/AIDS becoming available there was a growing fear that AIDS would impact the general populous as was seen in many other countries during that period.”

“The disproportionate impact on predominantly  gay men allowed AIDS related stigma and discrimination to flourish, supported by the frameworks of homophobia exhibited at a time when there was criminalisation of homosexuality remaining across a number of jurisdictions.  The fear of people living with HIV/AIDS, that we were dangerous, untrustworthy vectors of disease who should be avoided, was reinforced by the Grim Reaper campaign and has impacted the lives of every person living with HIV from that point on.  We still have to work in hard supporting each other through the confronting and searing effects of the Grim reaper campaign on the public consciousness, today, in 2021,” said Keane.

“What was truly successful and now recognised as  worlds’ best practices was not generating fear, but providing a community-led response. Central to this was the  meaningful involvement of the diverse and sometimes marginalised communities living with and affected by HIV/AIDS in prevention and support responses.    We came to engage with communities of people who inject drugs and sex workers to help reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS among those populations and the broader community.”

According to Keane, a community-led response is missing from the current campaign for creating awareness about COVID-19 and vaccination.  “If we are trying to engage culturally diverse communities in the conversation, give them the resources to respond from their own context to engage their own communities, not just because it’s obvious, but because it works,” added Keane.

‘Insensitive Ad’

Even the man behind the 80’s HIV/AIDS Grim Reaper campaign himself, Bill Bowtell, thinks the federal government has gone too far, chiming in with his opinion on the ineffectiveness of this particular covid message.

He said in a tweet after the ad first aired “This ad should be immediately taken off air. Today in Sydney a young girl with Covid – about the same age as the actor in the ad – is on a ventilator fighting for her life. This insensitive ad can only distress her family and friends. It is misconceived in every way.”


Labor frontbencher, Chris Bowen, whose Western Sydney electorate is currently being affected by the Sydney lockdowns weighed in as well, talking about the vaccine availability issue and telling Fran Kelly on ABC radio it’s “not vaccine hesitancy so much, it’s vaccine scarcity”, also accepting that while there’s a definite need for “pointing out the consequences of not getting vaccinated” the new campaign missed the mark somewhat.

“I think the government really needs to rethink this advertising campaign from scratch. It’s too late, and it’s pretty low impact,”

80’s HIV/AIDS Grim Reaper still haunts

Contributing to a case program from 2008 entitled “The AIDS Grim Reaper Campaign” by The Australian and New Zealand School of Government, writer and activist David Menadue, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1984 talked about the days of the Grim Reaper ad saying, “…at the time, it was incredibly scary, particularly for positive people. Like, we felt we were the Grim Reaper bowling the balls and that poor little girl in the pigtails, in many ways, was not the real target of the campaign.” 

Immunologist Professor Ron Penny, reflecting back on the period in the same report, agreed: “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.”

The new covid ad was filmed towards the end of last year and was shelved until now because the pandemic in Australia to this point hadn’t warranted such a severe message but it will now play to television audiences in Sydney, as well as on social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

Some activists pointed out the trauma and stigma inflicted by the Grim reaper ad.

Others tried to look for humour in the ad.

One social media user wondered what the government would do next to create awareness about in-home bowel testing.


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