This confronting advertising campaign ran for only three weeks in the 1980s, but it is seared on the nation's collective memory

The Grim Reaper from the Australian Government's AIDS awareness campaign, 1987. Picture: National Archives of Australia: M3794, 15

The Grim Reaper from the Australian Government's AIDS awareness campaign, 1987. Picture: National Archives of Australia: M3794, 15

At first, only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS.

But now we know every one of us could be devastated by it.

So warned the infamous "Grim Reaper" advertisement that aired on Australian television for three weeks in mid-1987. The hooded Reaper rolled a bowling ball down an alley towards men, women and children standing as pins.

They were knocked down by the enormous ball, skittering to the floor. According to the ad, "50,000 men, women and children ... carry the AIDS virus ... if not stopped, it could kill more Australians than World War II".

The confronting ad was commissioned by the National Advisory Committee on AIDS and conceived of by '80s advertising prodigy Siimon Reynolds. It was arguably the most memorable part of the Australian government's response to the 1980s AIDS crisis.

Most people alive at the time remember it in some form, and versions of it have been uploaded to YouTube with nearly 150,000 views.

Stills and footage from the ad, as well as cabinet submissions and decisions about its rollout across the country, are held by the National Archives of Australia.

The AIDS crisis began in Australia when the first case was diagnosed in Sydney in October 1982.

By the following year 3000 HIV infections had been recorded in Australia and the disease had taken more than 4000 lives in the United States.

Commonwealth health minister Neal Blewett warned that AIDS was "potentially one of the most serious and expensive public health problems to face Australia since Federation".

Action was urgently needed. The government established the National Advisory Committee on AIDS, led by chair Ita Buttrose, and comprised medical professionals, and government and community representatives.

The committee's job was to advise Mr Blewett on legal, social, education and preventive matters concerning HIV and AIDS.

Crucially, the Commonwealth and most state and territory governments worked together to implement the committee's recommendations.

Education was essential, and not just for those at risk. Peer-run volunteer groups, best able to reach marginalised groups such as drug users and sex workers, were funded to provide education on the ground.

Sex and AIDS education programs were ramped up in schools.

And in 1987, the National Advisory Committee on AIDS looked to commission a public-health television campaign that would catch - and hold - the attention of viewers at home.

The resulting ad was seared into the memory of anyone who saw it.

So what was it that made the Grim Reaper so shocking? The frightening imagery, as well as the frank language that implored people to always use condoms in sexual encounters, were certainly part of it.

But it was also the fact that the people being skittled by the Reaper's ball represented the general Australian public.

The ad was criticised for causing 'unnecessary' fear to the broader community, as detractors claimed the risk to the general population was overstated.

Those who did not consider themselves to be at risk were confronted with the reality that AIDS did not discriminate based on sexuality.

The danger to the broader population - even to the baby held in its mother's arms and sent flying by the Reaper's successfully bowled spare - was real.

The ad was criticised for causing "unnecessary" fear to the broader community, as detractors claimed the risk to the general population was overstated.

In the years since, even some involved in the development of the ad felt it had been counterproductive.

Dr Ron Penny, who diagnosed that very first case of AIDS in 1982 and was a member of the committee, lamented that ''the Grim Reaper became associated with gay men rather than as the Reaper'', increasing vilification of an already vulnerable community.

But there's no denying those numbers put forward in the ad - more dead than the 27,000 killed in World War II - didn't eventuate.

Infections and deaths remained low, even in vulnerable groups, especially when compared to other nations.

Looking back three decades on from the crisis, Australia's response - expert led, education based, cooperative and non-punitive - is recognised around the world as being first class.

The government's moral and legal responsibility to keep Australians safe from risks they could not reasonably avoid on their own was by and large met.

The cabinet decisions about the advertisement, footage, stills and paraphernalia relating to the Grim Reaper and later AIDS campaigns, and Q&A sessions with teenagers about safe sex can be found in the National Archives' collection, in addition to extensive material about Australian responses to other public health challenges.

Cabinet minutes show that the new campaign was designed ''forcefully to impress [on] the community'' that AIDS was fatal and dangerous to the heterosexual population.

  • Visit naa.gov.au for more information about the National Archives of Australia's collection.
This story How Australia tackled the AIDS crisis first appeared on The Canberra Times.