Who can forget the most powerful ad Australia has seen? It was the 60-second Grim Reaper TV commercial that launched the government's AIDS prevention campaign in 1987. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the discovery of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Before the Grim Reaper campaign, it was a taboo subject, only whispered about when the children had gone to bed.
In Australia, it was thought then that up to 50,000 people could be affected and it could kill more Australians than the 27,000 who died in World War II. The government responded by commissioning a brilliant campaign that made Sydney copywriter Siimon Reynolds famous. He and others were brave enough to confront the truth.
The TV part of the campaign ran for only three weeks, although secondary media ran longer. It was supported by about $2 million of advertising, which is really a drop in the ocean, but the effect will live on.
Research done after the three weeks found that 97 per cent of the people had seen it. Seventy per cent thought it had changed people's behaviour and 44 per cent had changed their own behaviour. Nothing had been as effective before it, and nothing since. Its message was simple in debunking the view that AIDS was a problem only for gay men and drug users.
The grave and threatening voice-over said "We know every single one of us could be devastated by it. In three years, 2000 of us will be dead", and the vision showed crying babies and children being knocked down by giant bowling balls. The screen was strewn with dead families. Many times in advertising, we refuse to say what might be embarrassing or uncomfortable. On this occasion, the advice was straightforward - "have one safe sexual partner and use a condom".
This was great advertising for a great purpose. It was a campaign of absolute leadership with frankness. The predicted 50,000 death toll did not eventuate. In fact, just short of 7000 Australians died, and since 1987, Australia's HIV infection rate has been among the lowest in the world. It is 1.3 per 100,000 - in the US it is 14 per 100,000.
But our society has many more problems than HIV. Mental health is one that is still not fully understood or accepted. One in five people in Australia has a mental health problem. This huge number often suffers silently, alone or with their distraught families.
The burden is enormous and growing, yet we don't seem to be able to deal with it in the way the Grim Reaper campaign so effectively combated the problem of HIV. At a time when Australian advertising has taken the highest haul of awards this week at the Cannes advertising festival, I wonder if we're letting our world-class advertising minds loose on the things that really matter.
The Grim Reaper campaign was funded by the government. This year, more than $100 million will be spent by the federal government on advertising. The coming election will boost ad spending to record levels. We are not doing the right thing by 23 million Australians if we don't use part of these massive budgets to deal effectively with the problems that silently lurk among us.