The Grim Reaper


The controversial Grim Reaper campaign aired on Australian television in April 1987.

The controversial Grim Reaper campaign aired on Australian television in April 1987. Grim Reaper image from 1987 public service message from the Australian National Advisory Committee on AIDS. Used by permission of the Australian Government


‘When I first saw it, it absolutely chilled me to the bone’ – Ita Buttrose on the Grim Reaper campaign.1 First aired on television on 5 April 1987, no one who saw the skeletal figure of ‘Death’ mercilessly bowling down men, women and children in that advertisement, could soon forget it. The television ad itself ran for just three weeks, followed by large advertisements in newspapers, yet it had a cataclysmic impact on Australian audiences.

‘It was a controversial campaign … in that it really shocked people. That was the intention, to wake up Australia out of its apathy’, said Ita Buttrose, then chair of the National Advisory Committee on AIDS (NACAIDS) who commissioned the ad.2 While the effectiveness of the campaign in regards to safe sex and attitudes towards HIV/AIDS has been debated,3 the campaign succeeded in getting people talking about AIDS. Phil Carswell recalls:

I don’t regret what the ad provided for us in terms of an open door to every school in the country … into every bowls club and social organisation and Rotary in the country, every doctor, GP and health professional who tried to ignore it in the past now couldn’t.4

However, some of the more negative aspects of the campaign also could not be ignored. Fears by the gay community that the figure of the Grim Reaper would be seen by many as representing gay men rather than death were somewhat justified in the increased hostility towards gay men. ‘It certainly scared a lot of straight people into avoiding anything to do with gay people, sex workers or drug users’, wrote Garrett Prestage, reflecting on the impact of the campaign.5 The immediate connection between AIDS and death instilled not only a sense of fear but also a sense of hopelessness for those people living with AIDS. Prestage recalls, ‘it scared many gay men into thinking sex could kill them’.6

David Menadue was working with people living with AIDS and the VAC at the time and noted how hard it was dealing with daily discrimination, ignorance and prejudice from politicians, hospitals, church leaders and the general public against people with AIDS and the gay community. ‘All of this’, he wrote ‘was compounded by the Grim Reaper advertising campaign’.7

So while the effectiveness of the campaign in regards to HIV prevention and education was questioned and some of the negative associations between AIDS and gay men perpetuated, the controversy and discourse surrounding the campaign opened the door for more mainstream media AIDS campaigns – and the VAC took full advantage of this. It started by demanding closer consultation between NACAIDS, the Federal Health Department and AIDS Councils with regards to future NACAIDS campaigns.8 Then, to counteract the negative portrayal of AIDS and the gay community, the VAC launched its own campaign on the side of milk cartons. Through a connection of one of the volunteers working at the VAC at the time, an advertisement for the ‘Safe Sex and AIDS’ brochure, with a number to call for a free copy, was printed on 100,000 milk cartons.9 Within two weeks, over 10,000 copies of the brochure were distributed.10

Like the Grim Reaper campaign, the VAC’s milk carton advertising attracted its fair share of controversy. Bruce Parnell recalls letters to newspapers and calls to talk-back radio declaring it a front for a gay organisation and accusing the campaign of ‘corrupting’ school students. While public discussion was one of the anticipated outcomes of this campaign, there were some people within the VAC who felt uncomfortable with this level of controversy. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of the milk carton campaign in counteracting the Grim Reaper stereotype could not be ignored.


In response to the Grim Reaper campaign, the VAC printed advertisements for a 'Safe Sex and AIDS' brochure on 100,000 milk cartons. Phil Carswell

In response to the Grim Reaper campaign, the VAC printed advertisements for a ‘Safe Sex and AIDS’ brochure on 100,000 milk cartons. Phil Carswell