Siimon Reynolds, the ad man behind the infamous Grim Reaper safe sex campaign, has compared the AIDS crisis to MDMA use and called for a similar campaign to prevent drug-related deaths.
“There are quite a few parallels between the AIDS issue and the MDMA issue because back then people did not know they were in danger of getting AIDS,” Reynolds said in a story published in The Daily Telegraph.
The Grim Reaper campaign has been a source of significant controversy.
HIV advocates say that the 1987 campaign has contributed to 30 years of HIV stigma that is still being undone.
“Once more for the people in the back: The Grim Reaper campaign terrorised people living with HIV & made generations of Australians afraid of us,” The Institute of Many’s Nic Holas tweeted in response to Reynolds’ comments.
“We’re still dealing with that fallout. Siimon Reynolds should keep his harmful opinions to himself.”
The Grim Reaper was revived by the Queensland government in a 2012 campaign which was called “a missed opportunity to update people on the reality of living with HIV today”, despite then-Health Minister Lawrence Springborg saying the appearance of the Grim Reaper was necessary to show “the threat of HIV/AIDS did not go away”.
The Queensland government later removed the Grim Reaper imagery from that campaign’s website, which appeared on every page.
Reynolds argues that “ecstasy has such a reputation as a friendly drug” due to ignorance, and claims that “the AIDS campaign worked because we also used newspapers to put out the correct information and then made the shocking and emotive case through broadcast media.”
His comments come as debate rages over pill testing in the wake of drug-related deaths at music festivals. Reynolds says that any MDMA scare campaign should involve well-known DJs.
“Having authority figures telling them not to do drugs won’t work because they will want to rebel,” he said.
Harm minimisation advocates believe pill testing will help curb deaths from unsafe doses of MDMA, but critics – including the NSW Premier Gladys Berijiklian – say there is no evidence pill testing works, and that combating drug use among young people altogether is the more practical approach.
But the lessons of the Grim Reaper campaign, which has since been significantly re-evaluated, indicate that a fear-based Grim Reaper-style campaign for MDMA use would do little to prevent young people, who are aware of the risks, from taking the drug.
Dr Ron Penny, a NACAIDS advisory committee member who diagnosed Australia’s first case of AIDS, said in 2002 that the Grim Reaper campaign had significant side effects.
“The downside was that the Grim Reaper became identified with gay men,” Penny said.
“That was what we had unintentionally produced. [The belief] by some that the Reaper was people with HIV infection.”
Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) executive director Rob Lake arrived in Australia from New Zealand in 1987 just before the commercial went to air and said he remembered being struck by its creepiness.
Lake acknowledged the commercial as a major investment by Government in trying to educate heterosexuals but, as members of one of the most affected communties, gay men were already afraid.
“Gay men in Sydney didn’t need a fear campaign because they were already living that fear,” then-Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) executive director Rob Lake told Star Observer in 2012, saying that the decline in new infections following the campaign was the result of a range of strategies.
“By then we had needle exchange programs and gay men had been facing the realities of the epidemic for a number of years, so it was on the back of that work that we began to see infection rates begin to trend down,” he said.
Research into fear-based HIV prevention campaigns suggest that scare tactics aren’t effective, with the UK’s Sigma Research saying that “using fear tactics tends to be favoured by individuals who are already engaging in the desired, health-protective behaviour.
“Fear campaigns, it seem, can reinforce existing safe sex behavior but not necessarily change it in those the campaign is targeting.”
“That campaign added greatly to the burdens carried by those of us who were living with HIV at the time,” David Menadue wrote for the National Association of People Living with HIV Australia in 2011.
“With our sunken cheeks and thinning limbs, many of us, looked not unlike the Reaper himself.
“So, rather than fearing the virus, people began fearing those with HIV and discrimination against us occurred as a result. With the message that “AIDS kills” it also gave people who were ill at the time less hope that they would survive.
“Positive stories about how people overcome the stigma and fear of HIV and are able to maintain safe sexual behaviours is a much better way forward.”