36 years on, we reflect on the Grim Reaper AIDS ad

For many people who watched the Grim Reaper AIDS commercial when it was first broadcast in 1987, it sure had an impact.

The commercial showed human bodies portrayed as bowling pins being lowered onto the ground, and then a figure cloaked in black and holding a scythe rolling a ball towards the group, knocking them all down. The message accompanied with the visuals is that AIDS is a killer that can affect anyone and everyone. It’s sombre and graphic, to say the least.

The TV ad was made to put AIDS on the public agenda and to help tackle the growing epidemic. At that time, HIV was reaching its peak in Australia with 2,773 cases that would be recorded by the end of 1987.

While the ad was made with good intentions and no doubt contributed towards the drop in HIV infections the following year, it also had some devastating effects, particularly on the gay community.

Amidst the tense discrimination that gay men were already facing in society, the Grim Reaper ad inadvertently demonised them and made them look like the villain, portraying them as irresponsible spreaders of the virus. Some people even associated gay men to the Grim Reaper, and it all boiled down to a simple equation: gay men = AIDS, and AIDS = death.

It’s something that even today, we have not been able to completely undo from society. Who would have thought that a 60-second commercial would have an impact that would span decades? What we’ve learnt is that scaring people to take action can work but can come at a price.

36 years later, the HIV landscape is far different, and for the better. What it means to be as someone in Australia living with HIV is no longer a death sentence.

In 2023, watching the Grim Reaper ad reminds us of how far we have come in the fight against HIV/AIDS and how the virus, gay men, and the broader LGBTQ+ community are represented in media today. A driving force behind this change is a culmination of things that can be attributed to the scientific advancements in testing, prevention and treatment, which have enabled us to better control the virus and the shift in our attitudes towards HIV and the communities it affects.

Without it, who knows how commercials, film and conversations around HIV may have looked like today?

WATCH the Grim Reaper TV ad below. We advise that the video may trigger some people.

And as a contrast, here’s how messaging around HIV looks like today. We’ve come a long way.