HIV and AIDs – Three Decades of Communications

September 2012 -
HIV three decades on blog image




HIV developments have recently grabbed headlines, with home testing kits and HIV preventing drugs offering increased optimism. People living with HIV can even expect to live a long, healthy life; if they get diagnosed early and take the right medicine. However, it is still estimated that around a quarter of people living with HIV in the UK do not even know that they have it. So why is this?

Recently, we have been doing scoping work around HIV and sexual health. Previous campaigns have been blamed for having a negative impact on the way people view HIV. So let’s take a look back at the history of HIV communications in the UK and Europe to see how things have changed.

In the early 80’s, when HIV and AIDs had only just been discovered, campaigns centred upon raising awareness. Towards the end of the 80’s the tactics of campaigns started to change; from trying to nudge the audience into changing their behaviour to all out shock tactics. One campaign even predicted a huge pandemic was about to sweep the UK, estimating that 400 people a month would die of AIDs. This campaign was swiftly followed by the infamous ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign featuring Icebergs and tombstones. The message was clear and in its immediate sense, the campaign was a success. However, the predicted epidemic never came and the campaign was criticised for creating widespread hysteria.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, some campaigns followed suit in their shock tactic methodology. However, the messages became deeper and the emphasis started to sway towards a message that HIV can effect everyone no matter their sexuality, race or gender. Throughout the 90’s, campaigns started to take a more light-hearted approach, with animation featuring in a number of campaigns.

More recently, social media and smartphones have created the potential to reach the masses through innovative campaigning, much easier (and cheaper) than it had ever been before. Creating cleaver campaigns, which effectively market themselves by getting the audience to share them, has in recent years, become a widespread approach. Online gaming was recently used in Switzerland in the ‘Catch the Sperm’ campaign to raise awareness of HIV and AIDs among young people. The campaign reached more than 18 million people in over 100 countries.

It is clear that going forward, social media can’t be ignored as a platform for future HIV campaigns. And, whilst the shock tactics of the ‘Don’t die of ignorance’ campaign had a profound impact and legacy, it is clear that HIV is a different disease than it was three decades ago and the way we approach our campaigning should change accordingly.