Countdown synopsis: If you are a fan of disturbing PSAs and classic Public Information Films, then this list of anti-AIDS commercials will be right up your street. And everyone else’s street for that matter. In fact the whole town will be horrified, just like many of the British households were back in the 1980s when the AIDS pandemic broke out, and when a series of infamously terrifying PIFs were made. Of course, in most first-world countries, AIDS is no longer perceived to be the death–sentence it once was, mainly thanks to medical treatment that allows anyone living with HIV to live a normal, healthy and happy life. In developing countries though, such as the many rural communities in Africa, lack of funding for medical facilities means AIDS is still a very severe problem, wiping out thousands of generations leaving young, vulnerable children in desperate need. A variety of charities can be found in the video description or at the end of this blog post, that help put an end to the suffering AIDS is still causing for thousands of vulnerable and disadvantaged communities across the world.
“There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all. It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure. The virus can be passed during sexual intercourse with an infected person. Anyone can get it, man or woman.
So far it’s been confined to small groups, but it’s spreading. So protect yourself. If you ignore AIDS it could be the death of you. So don’t die of ignorance.”
– Central Office of Information, “Monolith” Public Information Film, 1986
10: “Human Ball” – Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders, 2005 (Belgium)
The first one on the list is an ad that is artistically very simple, yet extremely poignant and powerful. We see a low-poly animation of a young African man tripping over and ‘rolling’ down a hill, only to roll into everyone else in his way. Each person is subsequently added to the ‘human ball’, which rapidly grows with every victim unfortunate enough to enter its path. By the end of the commercial, the ball is the size of a mountain as it heads towards a woman singing the background melody, who’s holding her young child. The human ball rapidly begins to overshadow her and her baby as it draws in close, only for her voice to cut out just before they are engulfed in the darkness. “Don’t let AIDS gain more ground” is the tagline. There is not much more to say about this ad other than… bloody hell. No wonder this ad went on to win 9 awards, it is just so powerful. This ad has helped many of the first-world countries understand that AIDS is still very prevalent and more devastating than ever, especially in resource-deprived areas such as rural Kenya.
9: “Stay” – Health Education Authority, 1988 (UK)
Next we have one of two adverts made by the Health Education Authority from 1988. Just when the likes of ‘Iceberg’ and ‘Monolith’ made a few years earlier were slowly seeping out of the minds of British households, the HEA made sure to hit back again twice as hard. Although this version – in my opinion – isn’t as chilling as its sister advert that features an infected Rick Astley lookalike and a female protagonist (named ‘My Place’), the sound effects used during each of the titles is still very unsettling. Like what even are those god-awful sounds?! I can’t even describe it… it’s like some sort of weird shrieking noise you’d hear if you recorded the screams from the bottomless fiery pits of hell and played them in reverse. Or someone with really long tenacious fingernails whirling their hands around to try to take off like some sort of attack helicopter. Either way, it’s bloody creepy!
8: “Symptoms” – London Lighthouse, 1990 (UK)
Here’s a very clever ad from an organisation previously known as London Lighthouse, that originally opened in 1986 and was formerly owned by the Terrence Higgins trust, but now ceases to exist since the premises was sold off to become the Museum of Brands in mid-2015. It was a drop-in centre based in Notting Hill, London, that provided counselling, support groups, therapies, advice, and all the other things you’d expect at a walk-in centre. It was also visited by the likes of Princess Diana, Prince Charles, Elton John and Elizabeth Taylor. Obviously, now that there are treatments to stop HIV turning into AIDS, such walk-in centres are no longer needed, thus funds become insufficient and soon places like London Lighthouse end up subsequently dissolving. Anyway, this ad goes on to describe the ‘symptoms’ of AIDS but with a twist: it’s not the actual symptoms of AIDS at all, but in fact the symptoms of your typical bigot who knows nothing of what they’re talking about. These include, but are not limited to, “paralysis of the hands” (not willing to give money to an AIDS charity), “hardening of the heart” (self-explanatory; completely unsympathetic towards gay people with AIDS), and “understanding deficiency” (implying that AIDS is a gay-only disease, and that if they were heterosexual they wouldn’t have caught it, when in fact anyone can get it). It’s a very well-made ad, and the sinister-sounding narrator does a fantastic job at evoking just the right amount of sarcasm in his tone. It’s your typical PIF that uses traditional British sarcasm and dark humour to encourage people to be more open about controversial subjects. What more could you possibly want?
7: “Wax Doll” – Central Office of Information (COI), 1987 (UK)
During the AIDS crisis throughout the 80s, government companies pretty much gave up on telling people not to do drugs. Instead, they told people that if you’re going to do drugs, do not do it with shared needles, otherwise you could end up injecting AIDS and getting more than you bargained for. If you have a good ear, you may have also noticed the ad uses a much more ‘feminine’ version of the audio used in the original ‘Why Me?’ ad from the same year. Anyway, it starts out like your typical anti-drugs PIF: pretty girl, ugly friends – ugly girl, pretty dead. Well she doesn’t ‘die’ per se, but she does end up injecting AIDS by sharing her boyfriend’s needle, so back then, you was pretty much considered dead regardless. This ad is so much like an anti-drugs ad, that if you wasn’t paying attention to the last few seconds, you’d probably miss the word “AIDS” completely and just presume it was the former. The only bit about this ad that I find breaks the overall sinisterness is that one bloody annoying gobby cow sneering, “boring, boring!” like half way through. And I don’t really understand the purpose of having the wax doll in there. Let’s be honest, its sole purpose is to only compare the female protagonist to a delicate and petite Barbie doll: so perhaps they should have done a second version with a male protagonist, but used an Action Man instead. And you’ve gotta love the fact that in order for the ad to appeal to young women, they thought it was an absolute must to mention something about losing one’s looks. Because becoming a junkie and injecting yourself with AIDS is all fine and dandy – but losing your looks? Now you’ll never be a YouTube beauty guru.
6: “Hourglass” – Sidaction, 2007 (France)
Next we have a new one I had not seen before until I started researching ads to use in this countdown. And it is, quite arguably, one of the most fiendishly clever PSAs I’ve ever seen… but it was also one of the most laborious PSAs I’ve ever had to reedit. For obvious reasons, I had to blur out each and every lady nipple (because apparently, according to most people, a female nipple is just so much more offensive than a male one) that appears throughout the whole video, which took a good few hours collectively, but felt like forever. I think I even done a little jig when I had finally finished censoring out all the body parts that are solely used for feeding babies. But backsides where poop comes out are apparently totally child-friendly and not as gross as the places where human milk comes from… because that makes sense, right? Anyhow, I find the dark, piercing ambience to be quite spooky, but it makes me feel like I’ve got tinnitus or something. And the creepy visuals of the bodies falling down onto a heap of dead corpses below doesn’t help much either. Thank you, Sidaction – what a very lovely image you’ve scarred my mind with.
5: “Monolith” – COI, 1986 (UK)
And here we have it, guys. The most notorious AIDS awareness PIF of all time, which was the first of two major public information campaigns with the iconic slogan, “AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance” – and boy, did they do their job. In fact, these adverts quickly became a cult classic amongst fellow PIF fans, and it really isn’t hard to see why. Although I do find its counterpart ‘Iceberg’ to be a bit more terrorising, this one in particular stood out (and continues to stand out) to a whole generation of people, and then some. Whether it’s the foreboding sinister atmosphere, the ominous narration of the late Sir John Hurt, or the bellowing sounds of the anonymous quarry worker hammering away at a large metal slate that becomes the forever-ingrained AIDS monolith, you’re sure to find something in this ad to please your morbid appetite. And who can forget the doom-laden shot of a lamenting bouquet of delicate white lilies being thrown onto a grave? You really can’t pick a favourite part in this one. But it certainly feels gives you a sense of your own impending doom.
4: “Why Me?” – COI, 1987 (UK)
Here’s another one that continues to stand the test of time amongst the PIF community. As previously stated, I believe this one was partnered with the ‘Wax Doll’ ad aforementioned… but this one is a lot more sinister. It is also the ad that first branded the slogan “Don’t Inject AIDS” into the minds of every British household in the 1980s, and obviously all PIF connoisseurs alike. At this point, the Government already knew that junkies were just gonna do drugs anyway, regardless of what they told them, so they thought: “Hey, if you’re going to kill yourselves with drugs, go right ahead. But please, for the love of God, don’t bring us all down with you!” – so they ultimately made this. We start by seeing a very anaemic-looking man laying restless in his bedroom. He starts coughing and becoming very disorientated as his mysterious illness takes its toll on him. After rinsing off his face in the bathroom, he begins to head downstairs after hearing the noise of the postman delivering letters – but not without almost blacking out and collapsing halfway down the stairs. He proceeds to pick up his post, one of which is an appointment letter, when we’re immediately transported to the blood test clinic as we begin viewing from Mr Reid‘s perspective. After a fellow nurse calls us through to haematology, we stroll along a daunting hospital corridor in an almost surreal, dreamlike fashion. But the reality of the situation proves to be anything but a dream: “Well Michael, the results of your blood tests have come through… and we have found antibodies that indicate that you are HIV positive.” Michael turns his ring to the inside of his hand, and forcefully clenches down on the hard gemstone out of sheer frustration. A flashback sequence then shows us that Michael is in fact an IV drug user, and unknowingly injected himself with HIV after sharing an infected needle. And we even get a brief shot of him shoving the sharp needle straight into his arm, just for good measure. Nice. Moral of the story: it’s okay to be an IV drug user… just use your own damn needles!
3: “Stage 9” – 1997 (USA)
After spending what seems like hours trying to research this ad, literally nothing is known about this commercial other than what is stated on culturepub.fr – that it’s an American ad from 1997. I also shortened the title, as ‘The patient at stage 9’ deemed to be a tiny bit of a mouthful to fit on the title card. I also couldn’t find anything about the credits behind it or what company commissioned it (although it was apparently produced by Lowe & Partners), but I guess the anonymity just adds to the poignancy – who exactly was Luke Stahler, and was he even a real person? Although we may never know the truth, the ad is still very disturbing. We see a young man sprawled on a bed in a darkened room, quietly whimpering in pain. When he reaches out to turn on a bedside lamp, we can see his body visibly covered in darkened lesions known as Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-related illness. His cadaverous, fragile body tremors as he desperately tries to sit up in his bed, but it bears too much for him as he softly sobs in prodigious pain. There’s something that’s just so harrowing about hearing only his cries and nothing else: no narration, no sound effects… nothing. We don’t even see much of his face or physical body either, just a very frail young man trying desperately to sit up in unbearable agony, with nobody around to help him. But that’s all this ad needs to really hit you right where it hurts. “And you think it’s hard to get out of bed to get a condom” reads the tagline: actually, I find it hard to get out of bed regardless. All jokes aside, American PSAs are usually quite tame – but bloody hell, America! You really pulled a rabbit out of a hat with this one. Not even a rabbit… in fact, you pulled out the whole cast of Animal Farm. Top job!
2: “Iceberg” – COI, 1986 (UK)
This cinema version of Iceberg does not feature the voiceover of John Hurt: in fact, the alternative version with Hurt’s voiceover can be found here. But to be honest, the absence of a voiceover just makes it even more isolating and bone-chilling (pardon the pun). It makes you feel as though you’re completely lost at sea and alone in the midst of the Antarctic ice caps. You can almost touch the coldness that permeates through the screen, and is enough to give you goosebumps and make your hairs stand on end. Not to mention that the high-end special effects and production design are state of the art – mind you, after spending £5 million making the campaign, you’d bloody well expect them to be! I don’t know about you, but I always feel like I need to stand inside a blazing hot furnace just to warm myself up a bit after watching this commercial… either that or it’s this horrible draft coming through my bedroom window. Either way, the sombre shots of the desolate Antarctic landscape, with nothing but disquieting ambience and the faint whistling of the bitterly cold winds, is enough to send shivers down your spine. Or make you want to put a wooly hat on at least.
1: “Bowling” – NACAIDS, 1987 (Australia)
All of you probably guessed that this would be number one. I mean, when you think of “scary anti-AIDS PSAs”, this one immediately springs into mind for most people. According to Siimon Reynolds, the creator of the ad, the ad was made due to an alarming amount of heterosexuals still thinking that AIDS was a gay-only disease, and not enough people knew about how to stop AIDS from spreading. Costing $3 million, this campaign was also deemed to be highly controversial. The Grim Reaper became identified with gay men and people with HIV infections, rather than the Grim Reaper simply harvesting the dead. Do I agree with the controversy behind it? Absolutely not. In fact, I think it was just another case of the easily offended throwing their toys out of the pram, and I don’t think the ad deliberately set out to cause controversy and paint gay people in a negative light. Nevertheless, the campaign was considered highly successful at educating the Australian public about AIDS and how to prevent it. Evidently, it is one of the scariest anti-AIDS commercial of all time: the eerie shots of the human ‘pins’ being ploughed down by hefty oversized bowling balls, accompanied by the bone-chilling sinister voice of John Stanton, is enough to give anyone nightmares: “always use condoms… always.”
A variety of AIDS charities can be found below if you would like to donate for research, or to find out more about AIDS and how it’s still affecting the 36.7 million people living with AIDS today:
Also, check out some factsheets for more information, courtesy of UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation:
Thank you so much for reading this blog post, and I hope you enjoyed the video!