How AIDS Advertising Has Evolved From Shock and Shame to Hope and Humor

Louie Moses was pretty proud of the tagline "Don't Fuck With AIDS" when he crafted it in 1991. An advocacy group plastered the message across Arizona State University's campus as the epidemic reached a crescendo. And when a radio station called him out for crass language, Moses replied "the ugliest word in that sentence is AIDS."

Looking back from the vantage point of World AIDS Day today—nearly 25 years later—the founder and creative director of Moses in Phoenix, Arizona sees it differently. 

"We did that totally for the shock value," he said. "In a lot of ways, it drew attention to the campaign. But it was kind of shallow and made people think AIDS is this kind of dirty disease." 

The latest work from his agency shows just how far public service announcements for HIV and AIDS have come. The Arizona Department of Health Services campaign "It's Only Dangerous If You Don't Know It's There" features colorful, comic book-style photography of young men and women going about their daily lives, drinking coffee, texting and slamming into walls and potholes they can't see. The message? Get tested and you'll be OK. (See below for a gallery of AIDS campaigns through the decades.)

That dramatic shift in tone marks a trend in an industry that increasingly favors messages of support and hope versus shock and shame. The upbeat approach is fueled by a better understanding of the disease, stronger treatment options and less stigma thanks to celebrities like Charlie Sheen speaking up about their status, Moses said. 

"The stuff we did in the early '90s was fear based, shocking and scared people into changing their behavior," he said. "Back then we thought that was the right way to go, and it may have actually shamed people into compliancy, and inadvertently created the stigma that people with HIV are bad."

As inspiration for the campaign rolling out this fall, Moses creatives watched YouTube videos of people accidentally slipping and running into things. Then they worked with photographer Blair Bunting to recreate and freeze-frame those slapstick moments. "It's like this casual part of life that might accidentally happen to anyone," Bunting said. 

The cross-channel campaign runs through Dec. 20 and includes billboards, restroom signs, video projections, digital and social media ads, and 15 YouTube videos like the one below. Everything directs viewers to HIVAZ.org, where the number of users has shot up 864 percent in the weeks since the campaign launched.

In this case, the client asked for a campaign that avoided scare tactics. Kit Kloeckl, executive director of AIDS nonprofit Aunt Rita’s Foundation, said the message has to reach millennials, who don't want to be preached at, and who don't remember the epidemic's dark days the way Gen Xers and baby boomers like him do. And they're a critical audience because a quarter of new infections affect people ages 13 to 24.

"I think the conversation's changing," he said. "What I've learned is we can talk about the stigma of the disease and not accomplish a lot. But I think we can change the stigma about knowing your status. There's no shame in getting tested."

Here's a look at how HIV/AIDS ads have changed over time:

1

1987

This poster managed to scare women about two dreaded conditions at once: AIDS and teen pregnancy. The confession comes courtesey of the Oregon Department of Human Services.

2

1987

Early on, ads addressed the fear of sharing drinking glasses (and even the communion cup). The California Medical Association teamed up with public health officials and community groups to create the iconic glass ad on the right.

3

1991

AWARE, or Arizonans Working for AIDS Relief, commissioned a series of provocative posters to startle sex-crazed college students. After Moses released the work, locals branded the shop a "gay agency," founder Louie Moses recalls.

4

2003

Act Against AIDS put the fear of death in the Swiss by reminding them "there is still no cure for AIDS." JWT / Fabrikant in Zurich is credited with the campaign. 

5

2004

Even superheroes aren't safe, this French campaign warned on behalf of AIDES.

6

2005

TBWA's "Baby, Baby" video for AIDES chronicled one woman's love life in beautiful animation. The Cannes gold lion winner was unusually upbeat at the time. (NSFW)

7

2011

The N.Y. Health Department released a video full of guilty looks and graphic close-ups of health problems spawned by AIDS. And it took a lot of flack, a signal attitudes were changing.

8

2013

"Positive" can be a dreaded word in the context of an HIV test. But this New York State Division of Human Rights campaign turned it into an empowering mantra. The campaign attracted negative press, though, when the stock-photo model sued for becoming the face of a disease she didn't have.

9

2014

GMHC relaunched the feel-good "I Love My Boo" New York subway campaign championing AIDS awareness and gay rights, particularly for men of color. The photos originally hit subways in 2010 to mixed reviews.

10

2015

Forget positive. "Equal" stresses that everyone should get tested. In older ads, "it was all sunken in faces and dramatically lit characters," remarked Moses. Now: smiling faces and bright colors. 

11

2015

Moses' campaign shows an everyday guy about to make an everyday mistake. "Advertising at its best is informative, educational, and it needs to first start with some emotion and compassion," he said. "Everybody being aware of it is critical."