Scare people can work, but it comes at a price
Reynolds thinks so, but concedes – in hindsight – that “advertising is a blunt instrument,” and that the most well-meaning campaigns often have unexpected and negative social results.
“We had to do something big. At the time, there was a lot of ignorance and misinformation. I remember reading a newspaper headline asking if you could get AIDS on the toilet seat, ”he recalls.
And he sees parallels with the COVID pandemic today.
“There are the anti-vaxxers, there is a lot of misinformation on social media and apathy, most people don’t know anyone who has had COVID. There is inertia within the community in the face of something that is a very serious threat to all of us.
“I still sincerely believe that we have to scare people into taking action when the going is this serious. The means justify the end.
Former Reynolds advertising contemporaries, from Jane Caro to Dee Madigan, have resoundingly criticized COVID advertising, arguing that its fear tactics send the wrong message, and that more would be achieved by providing an informed and positive message.
Other critics say it was redundant given that the age group depicted is not eligible for vaccination and called the announcement unnecessary fear-mongering. However, Reynolds thinks it doesn’t go far enough and says it looked too bright to be convincing, let alone shocking.
But scaring people can come at a price.
Many years after the Grim Reaper ad was launched, the late Dr Ron Penny, who diagnosed Australia’s first case of AIDS in 1982 and was a member of the committee tasked by health officials to fight the virus, conceded in 2002: was that the Grim Reaper identified with gay men rather than the Reaper. This is what we had produced unintentionally – [the belief] by some that the Harvester was people infected with HIV, rather than the Harvester collecting the dead.
Reynolds agrees, but says his goal at the time was only to create “a wake-up call for Australia” – not to demonize gay people. Penny also insisted that the impact of the ad was “amazing.”
But the way this unintentional demonization of homosexuals manifested itself on the streets was almost as frightening as the virus itself.
Homosexuality had only been decriminalized in New South Wales three years before the Grim Reaper ads aired, homophobic discrimination was rife, poofter bashing was a real thing that groups of supposedly straight men would do for thrills and to be “unmasked” at work or for the family has remained a real fear.
Even today, the Grim Reaper spot is sobering with its deep, deadly voice telling in central Australia: “In the beginning, only gay people and injecting drug users were killed by AIDS. . . But now we know that each of us could be devastated by this. “
The word “only” would never fly today, but the message is still as moving as it was then, especially the creepy Hooded Reaper hurtling down a foggy alleyway out of human pins in the shape of ‘vanilla men, screaming little girls, old ladies, even mothers and their babies.
The new COVID advertising is also facing. It was created by Brisbane’s Carbon agency, but its staff have been gagged by the federal government for not talking about it, which is a shame as the publicity and the overall campaign got people talking, as did the Grim Reaper.
While it will be some time before we fully appreciate the true impact of the COVID announcement, we hope it won’t take 34 years to figure it out.