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

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 favours messages of support and hope versus shock and shame. The upbeat approach is fuelled 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 behaviour,” 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.”