“That ad had a very clear brief to scare the hell out of Australia and put AIDS on the list. Prior to that no one knew about it. That ad is once seen, forever remembered.”

– Noel Magnus, Head of Accounting Management, M&C Saatchi.

By the end of 1984 there had been 18 deaths and 47 diagnosed cases by 1985 4500 men in Sydney and Melbourne had tested positive for HIV which was the precursor to AIDS between 1983 to 1986 the AIDS issue became incredibly complex and there was an epidemic primarily within the gay (male) community and injecting drug users. 

William Bowtell, a senior advisor to the health minister at that time believed that the Federal government was the best place to present a campaign to make a change. There was a large group of conservative opinions within the government deeming the sufferers of this illness (gay men, drug users/addicts, sex workers etc) to be “irredeemably awful and evil and their destructive behaviour wouldn’t change and therefore all the power of the state should be used [against them].” Although this offensive viewpoint was representative of a large amount of the Federal government Botwell persevered collaborating with researchers and scientists to formulate a strong and clear prevention message to the Australian public. 

It was through this collaboration and research the Grim Reaper campaign was born. They wanted to have a controversially emotive and powerful public service announcement on television that shocked the Australian Public into awareness and action. The video depicts a terrifyingly haunting grim reaper figure at a dark hazy/smokey bowling alley with ‘average everyday Australians’ representing the bowling pins. The Grim Reaper figure bowled striking down the people depicted while a foreboding voice over says “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.”

The Grim Reaper Commercial Campaign Televised in 1987

The initial response to the Grim Reaper campaign was successful, there was instantaneous reaction and conversation surrounding the controversial video. There were varied opinions in reaction to the campaign video from all spectrums some deemed it scaremongering by ‘gay groups’ to take control of a national agenda, some deemed it offensive and sensationalising the illness and its sufferers further isolating the communities that were already marginalised and persecuted. But the evidence showed that the number of diagnoses fell after 1987 and continued to fall until 2001. On an international level Australia then had one of the lowest levels of infection in the world. 

‘Australia’s Response to HIV/AIDS 1982-2005

There has been nothing throughout Australian television history that has had as strong of an impact or reaction in terms of design initiative or creative social engagement campaign for public health through the medium of televised adverts.


  1. Padula, M. 2008, ‘The AIDS Grim Reaper Campaign (A),’ The Australian and New Zealand School of Government 
  2. Bowtell, W., ‘Australia’s Response to HIV/AIDS, 1982-2005’, Lowy Institute for International Policy Sydney, Australia, May 2005, p. 15.
  3. Blewett, N., op. cit., 2003/07, p. 8.
  4. Morlet AGuinan JJDiefenthaler IGold J. 1988, ‘The impact of the “grim reaper” national AIDS educational campaign on the Albion Street (AIDS) Centre and the AIDS Hotline’, WILEY, 148: 282‐286


1. Bowtell, W., ‘Australia’s Response to HIV/AIDS 1982-2005’, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, Australia, May 2005, p. 7.


1. Double Denim Days, 2016, video recording, Youtube, viewed 20/11/2019 <>

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