In a publicity push similar to that of “Sarah’s Story”—which Prize4Life blogged on several weeks ago—German public health organization Regenbogen will air a provocative TV ad next week. Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Josef Stalin figure into a series of highly sexualized video ads as part of a shock campaign promoting World AIDS Day. The provocative commercials, which end with the tagline "AIDS is a mass murderer", aim to scare young people into using condoms by associating the deadly disease with political dictators, reported ABC News (The Telegraph also covered the story).
The ad opens in a darkened bedroom with a man and a woman in bed. The man is a look-a-like of the German dictator. The tagline reads: "AIDS is a mass murderer - Protect yourself!"
The project is the brainchild of German charity, Regenbogen, whose website reads: "Up until now 28 million people have died. And every day there are 5,000 new cases. Which is why AIDS is one of the most effective mass murderers in history."
Some HIV organizations have distanced themselves from the ad, complaining—in a familiar argument—that shock tactics are ineffectual. Some agencies claim also that the tactics serve only to stigmatize the infected and to guilt women especially.
However, the campaign’s producers see the fuss—and the fact that the videos are being watched thousands of times on YouTube—as a sign that their plan is working.
Dr. Amir Afkhami, instructor of psychiatry and behavior sciences and Global Health at the George Washington University, supports the initiatives. "It's effective because it raises awareness of the risk factors...This issue has come up among activists in the U.S. and there have been arguments that there needs to be more shock value," he said.
A 2003 study of by Darren Dahl, published in the Journal of Advertising Research found that shock tactics in AIDS ads significantly increase "attention and retention" of the message. Other studies, including one from Ohio State University, show that appearing to peoples’ fears are "powerful persuasive devices."
"It should encourage conversation about disclosure [of HIV status]," said David S. Novak, a senior public health strategist for Online Buddies Inc. "What is terrible is holding a secret and the secret disease inside of them." Afkhami notes that "The real failure on the part of health care advocates and social advertising has been raising awareness."
Prize4Life is perplexed by the apparent double standard here. These ads—which in some ways are more controversial than the “Sarah’s Story” campaign—have encountered less negative reactions, and have been allowed to remain on the air. The press has commented rationally and academically on the use of shock tactics that Regenbogen employed. Graphic ads warning against the dangers of drunk driving, drug use, and texting while driving, are all considered appropriate fodder for public television.
Given that Regenbogen’s ads have not been removed for their ‘disturbing’ features, we wonder what, exactly, differentiates the shock tactics employed here with the ones used in filming "Sarah’s Story". Is it because HIV/AIDS is well-known, and ALS is not? Is an ALS shock campaign less palatable because ALS' cause is largely unknown, whereas preventative measures are effective in controlling HIV infection?
Whatever the case, we consider it telling that this series of ads, while it has received its fair share of buzz, was allowed to remain public, while “Sarah’s Story” was banned. We support Regenbogen’s initiative, and we believe that “Sarah’s Story” should join it on the airwaves.
As always, Prize4Life believes that sanitized presentations of illnesses are not effective or appropriate—that by ‘cleaning up’ images of HIV or ALS, we are able to ignore them, and that ‘clean’ publicity detracts attention from diseases that could be used to find a cure.
Like ALS, HIV/AIDS is brutal; Prize4Life believes that awareness can help lead to a cure, and that the pain inflicted by disease progression is not ‘too shocking’ to be public, especially in comparison to other things that are publicly aired without controversy (rape, violence, etc).
One commenter on the ABC story wrote, “I think the whole point of the ad is to shock and encourage a rethink of your actions. It's supposed to be disturbing. All the complaints prove it's effective. Nicy-nice ads don't work.”
We think that applies to ALS, too.
by Meghan Kallman