Is the return of the Grim Reaper imminent?

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Is the return of the Grim Reaper imminent?

Perth creative veteran John Ilian says the Australian Government’s COVID vaccination campaigns are a waste of money and tactics from a previous era are required.


On Friday, 3 April, 1987 I collected Siimon Reynolds from Perth airport. For my sins at the time, I was President of the PADC [Perth Art Directors Club – now the Perth Advertising and Design Club]. The PADC Management Committee had invited Siimon (and his Art Director partner – Marcus Jackson) to WA to run a Creative Workshop for PADC members over that weekend. During the drive into Perth, Siimon told me that Australian television advertising would change significantly on Sunday night (5 April) – and he was glad not to be in Sydney for the occasion. It was, of course, the first time that Australians would view the Grim Reaper TV commercial he had written. I remember the date because 5 April was my wedding anniversary.

Over the next four or five years, whenever I was in Sydney for a TV commercial production, a Directors meeting with the parent company of my then Perth-based ad agency or for a meeting with AWARD (Australian Writers and Art Directors Association – we had launched AWARD school for aspiring advertising creatives in Perth) – I would catch up with Siimon for a drink or for lunch. So I had plenty of opportunities to discuss advertising with him including, of course, the Grim Reaper.

The Grim Reaper was a product of NACAIDS) National Advisory Committee for AIDS) of which Ita Buttrose was the Chairperson. Since 1987, the Grim Reaper has been somewhat vilified for several reasons. Some said it was ‘overly dramatic.’ Other claimed its impact revolved around ‘horror.’ It used ‘shock.’ It delivered insufficient information.

The criticism was so severe that the $300,000 commercial was withdrawn from broadcast some nine weeks after its launch. Its message was simple. ‘Prevention is the only cure we have.’ The commercial voice over ended: ‘Always use a Condom. Always.’ A graphic directed inquiries to a government health website.

Back in 1987, things were different. Australia witnessed its first mobile phone call in February that year; John Howard sacked Andrew Peacock from his Shadow Cabinet; the federal Opposition was at war with Queensland’s Joh Belke Petersen; Disposable Contact Lenses arrived. Plus, the era was without the plethora of social media we have today.

In 2021, some are now calling for a similar ‘Grim Reaper’ style of campaign to replace the government’s insipid Covid vaccination campaign – a communication which has zero impact; lacks clear communication goals, and whose messages are hugely compromised by confusing press releases, conflicting government announcements about the efficacy of certain vaccines (Astra Zeneca in particular); fragmented by messages aimed at different targets for different vaccines. Plus, it is being sabotaged and disrupted by numerous hiccups in vaccine supply and distribution. It’s no surprise therefore, to see the resulting increase in vaccination hesitancy.

In 1987, AIDS was simply not part of the social landscape. An all but global virus pandemic for which there was no cure (and it remains so) had arrived. Yes – the prevalence of AIDS was initially thought to be largely dangerous only amongst homosexuals. And yes today, there are now control and management treatments for sufferers of AIDS. But there is still no cure. However back then, it was soon learnt that sexual promiscuity could also put the larger heterosexual target at risk. Put simply, AIDS (like Covid) did not discriminate. But more importantly, until the Grim Reaper commercial was aired, AIDS had zero social presence.

As Siimon explained to me, the Grim Reaper was designed to put AIDS into the social landscape. Behind that strategy, NACAIDS produced copious quantities of information distributed largely through Medical and Hospital resources, charities and the sex industry amongst others.

Did the Grim Reaper put AIDS on the social agenda? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ Have sexual habits changed? Likely – I don’t know. Has the use of condoms increased? I hope so.

Recently, the Vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, Chris Moy, said his concern was many Australians felt safe from the Covid virus. They were not motivated to get vaccinated as the vaccines became available, and they became eligible for inoculation. He argued that a more proactive and really more positive communications campaign was needed to highlight the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination. He said that given Australians faced no COVID, we’re disconnected from the world. Many do not perceive the risk. Some countries (New Zealand and Singapore) have devised their vaccination communication strategies and executions as ‘pathways to freedom.’

So what is needed in Australia for Covid?

Firstly, a clear communication strategy that says:
Number one: ‘Get vaccinated to protect yourself – and every other Australian.’
And Number two: ‘The only excuse for non-vaccination is a seriously compromised immune system, an allergy, or a pre-existing condition.’ In which case, consult your Doctor.

Conscientious objection should not be acceptable if it is based on philosophical objection alone. Why? Because, I believe personal objection is secondary to public danger (community first; self, second). In the case of the former, hesitaters and objectors could simply register for vaccination by any of the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer or Moderna) as soon as they become available. Since information must compete with misinformation, campaign enquiries should be directed to a single, easily accessible and authoritative website.

If a campaign is to be based on such a communication strategy, ought it involve the shock, horror and confrontation inherent in the Grim Reaper commercial? That is a matter of how the strategy is executed. Whatever form it takes, it needs to be both simple and emotionally connecting. Otherwise, it’d be a waste of money. Like the government’s current campaign is right now.