What can we learn today from a three-decades-old TV campaign?

Over the past six months, I’ve received hundreds of media requests asking for my opinion on the various state and national COVID vaccine rollout campaigns. Mostly, I was asked to give my thoughts on the relative merits of today’s public health campaigns versus one created to help with an earlier crisis, some 34 years ago.

The AIDS Grim Reaper campaign 

The sentiment amongst the media is generally that there are many lessons that we should have learned from the AIDS Grim Reaper campaign that could have been applied to our current COVID advertising.


As the writer of the Grim Reaper campaign, I believe the Federal government should have been tougher with its marketing of anti-COVID measures than it was. In my view, the government and its advisors were so concerned about unsettling people that they spoke too softly. As a result, they were quickly outshouted by anti-vax social media campaigners – and so the rate of vaccinations remained dangerously low for a long time (as recently as 12 weeks ago, 30% of Australians researched said they were seriously considering not getting vaccinated – ever).


But rather than focus on the marketing lessons the Federal government should have learned from the success of the Grim Reaper campaign, I believe it’s more relevant to look at the lessons all marketers can learn. In my view, there are three valuable lessons to glean from the AIDS campaign’s success.


  1. Visual symbols are extremely powerful and underused.

It was the symbol of death, the Grim Reaper, that instantly pierced the advertising clutter and got people who were initially ambivalent about the threat of AIDS (“It’s a disease that affects gay people”) to wake up and take notice of the dangers to anyone who did not practice safe sex. 


Why aren’t more advertisers using visual symbols? They have worked fabulously for many decades (From the Coco Pops monkey to The Michelin Man), but can you name a single current brand that has centred its marketing around a visual character or symbol? Very few can.


What a missed opportunity. Create a good visual character, and instantly you own a territory in the consumer’s mind, and you have a ‘campaignable’ idea that can be used for decades in every medium, without paying outrageous fees for celebrities (who often lose their lustre after a year or two).


  1. To be effective in marketing, you must be ruthlessly simple.

Multiple campaign messages or complex marketing ideas always fail, yet so many marketing directors approve campaigns that are needlessly complex.

Why? Because complexity gives the illusion of safety. If we mention a whole list of product benefits, then surely the consumer will remember at least one of them. No, the opposite is true. According to Ogilvy research, the average person sees over 1,600 marketing messages a day. If we say too much, the consumer remembers too little. In fact, they can scarcely remember a thing. Try this quick test… how many ads can you remember from the 1,600 you were exposed to yesterday?


The Grim Reaper ad was simplicity itself. The symbol of death bowling at and killing every type of Australian. And 34 years later, it is still remembered by millions.


  1. Great advertising takes courage.

Courage to say something different. Courage to zig when the rest zag. Courage to strip away extraneous elements and just focus on one or two, again and again.


Great ads are wonderful to watch but hard to create, because they must get through so many levels of approval. 


Just one “No” at any level, and they’re dead. I can assure you, the only reason the Grim Reaper is so clearly remembered 34 years later is that a handful of people on the client side had the courage to push for something special, different, and new in the face of those who wanted to ‘sanitise’ the idea.


Without courage in mass communications, the result is ordinary and forgettable. The bland leading to the bland.


So, there you have it… these are the three lessons learned from the AIDS Grim Reaper campaign. They are just as applicable to advertisers today as then. And they will be just as relevant for as long as marketing exists.


COVID will wax and wane. But great marketing will always be with us if we learn these three eternal marketing lessons, exemplified by the Grim Reaper campaign so many years ago.


Siimon Reynolds portrait shot

Siimon Reynolds is a well-known figure in Australia’s advertising industry. He remains the youngest ever executive creative director of any Grey office in the world and was 22 at the time he created the fabled Grim Reaper campaign for the Federal AIDS Taskforce in 1987. Siimon now runs an executive coaching business and is a Director of DPR&Co.

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