AIDS is a Mass Murderer – a Failed Campaign

This essay was part of the coursework for an seminar which is called ‘Applied Communications’.  I analyze and criticize in this text an infamous information campaign on AIDS which has been launched last year in Germany. As it turned out, the creators failed with their approach. This might be interesting for people who mainly focus on PR studies.

1. Introduction

In today’s media culture nothing seems to be impossible – an immense diversity characterises the current range of media content. Information enters the ever flowing data stream of mass media continuously. Thereby, plurality[1], as postmodernist philosophers described it (e.g. Lyotard 1984), has apparently become pivotal for the process of generating media content. Borders are set off, symbols are no longer bound to one specific meaning exclusively; quotation becomes an essential technique especially in film and advertising. Symbols and citations are often taken out of one context to be put into another, which can possibly be a completely different one. References are allocated arbitrarily to achieve a certain effect which is defined by the media producer alone. This artistic freedom is an important source of creativity in today’s media ‘industry’. However, there still are certain limits: When ethical principles are violated it can cause controversial discussions. Then a media product may easily meet not only criticism but also refusal.

Especially in advertising transgressions were often made to generate a shocking moment only for the purpose of obtaining attention of a wider public[2]. An information campaign concerning AIDS designed by the German ‘Regenbogen e.V.’[3] in liasion with the advertising agency ‚das comitee’ could be added to this category: In an advertising clip and on posters AIDS is personalised either as Hitler, Saddam Hussein or Stalin, calling it a mass murderer (das comitee http://www.aids-ist-ein-massenmoerder. de/typo3/index.php?id=aids_kampagne 06/10/09). Due to the provoking content of the presented media artefacts the initiators and creators have been heavily criticized, in- and outside Germany. Ascertaining this example leads to some important as well as interesting questions concerning communication processes and strategies in contemporary media culture: What are the limits of creativity in media? Which factors do media producers have to consider in conceptualizing and realising a project? What happens when the content of a media artefact collides with ethical beliefs of one (or more) collectives? Why did this communication concept actually fail? To approach answers to these questions, the conceptualization and realisation of the campaign shall be described and analyzed in this essay. The reactions of other AIDS organisations, the public, and the media have to be explored, too. Thereby different aspects of communication strategies in today’s (mass) media shall be highlighted in regards of culture, hegemony, identity construction and postmodernism. Finally, some basic ideas for a less polarizing, more appropriate information campaign concerning AIDS / HIV are suggested. But: Within the limits of this paper, an extensive, in-depth discussion on the raised issues cannot be offered – some aspects can only be described cursorily. For instance, an extensive philosophical discussion on ethics cannot be provided. Anyhow, the effects and the problems of the chosen media artefact shall be illuminated and assessed.

2. The “AIDS is a Mass Murderer” Campaign 2009

Since mover than 25 years different groups from the social- and health-sector attempt to draw the attention of a wider public on AIDS. Various information campaigns were launched using a diverse repertoire of media artefacts. Also annual events like the World Aids Day (World AIDS Day, 01/12/09) shall point to the still existing and growing threat. Many of these organisations know about the importance of the media. It is thereby commonly assumed that the construction and representation of AIDS and HIV carriers in the mass media effects the general perception of the issue in the public[4]. The following  analysis of the chosen example will show how its content differs from previous information products and why it caused controversial discussions.

2.1 Basic Idea, Conception and Realisation of the Campaign

As the global interest in AIDS especially in Western countries seems to decline, the German ‘Regenbogen e.V.’ decided to start a campaign in September 2009 to point to the threat (Regenbogen e.V. 06/10/09). The message to communicate was as important as simple: AIDS is still one of the deadliest diseases and until today ca. 25 million people died of it[5]. An estimated 14000 people are infected with HIV each day (BBC News, 1779480. stm 02/12/09). In a 2006 study UN population researchers declared that by 2025 AIDS could cause 100 million deaths in Africa alone (worldrevolution, news/article1857.htm 02/12/09). To remind people of this alarming development ‘Regenbogen e.V.’ ordered the German advertising agency ‘das comitee’ to create striking media artefacts for their new information campaign. Against the background of the named facts and estimations about AIDS the idea of the disease as a mass killing phenomenon emerged. Ultimately, the creators decided to personify the illness by calling it a mass murderer. As symbolic embodiments three of history’s worst dictators and factual mass murders were chosen: Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein. The creators explained their decision as follows: “We asked ourselves what face we could give to the virus, and it couldn’t be a pretty face’ (Dirk Silz, 02/12/09). To enhance the intended shock effect the three historical figures are shown naked, having sexual intercourse with attractive women – this connection of death and sexuality forms a powerful combination to evoke strong emotional reactions. The concept was realized in a video clip and on posters[6], using drastic scenes to draw the audience’s attention. In the clip a man and woman enter a dark room, starting to kiss and stripe their clothes off. ‘Dance’ music implies both could have met in a club or at a party i.e. they possibly are complete strangers to each other. Both persons are naked, groaning is audible. The sexual act is almost explicitly shown – despite the dark setting and blurred camera shots. Then the face of the male protagonist appears: It is the visage of Hitler, portrayed by an imitator. At this point the created tension collapses abruptly. In the end the phrases “AIDS is a mass murderer” and “Safe yourself” fade in and the link to the campaign’s homepage is given.

The main mechanism behind the clip’s effect on the recipients is the creation of sexual tension which is suddenly deconstructed by a surprising / shocking end. This unexpected turn in the ad’s ‘plot’ intensifies the shock effect. Only when the writings appear the caused confusion is dissolved and the actual message becomes clear. In the video clip Hitler occurs alone, the other two dictators are exclusively shown on posters. Here the same stylistic devices and role allocations are used: young attractive women having sex with either Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein. The despots are naked and seem to face the viewers of the poster directly. A lettering in front of the pictures contains the same message as the lines in the clip. The contrast of black and red contributes to the drastic aura of the media artefacts, too.

2.3 Reception, Reactions and Evaluation by the Public

„For a tough issue a tough campaign“ (das comitee 06/10/09, own translation) – with these words the creators describe their provoking concept. Following this line the pictures rapidly aroused public interest and increased media coverage world wide[7]. But a large part of the reactions were rather negative and several groups expressed harsh criticism, most notably ‘Action Against AIDS Germany’ (AAAG) and the ‘Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe e.V.’ (DAH). The two biggest national organisations concerning the disease swiftly dissociated themselves from the campaign. They even successfully lobbied against broadcasting the clip in Television on the World AIDS Day ( AAAG, aktuell/datum /2009/09/11 /reaction -of-the -bzga -to-the-csf-letter-about-the-aids-is-a-mass-murderer/ 06/10/09). To them the reasons for disapproval are obvious: the presented media artefacts would lack adequate respect for the victims of the dictators as well as those of AIDS. Furthermore, men would be stereotyped as the circulators of the illness and HIV victims are stigmatised in general. Thus, AAAG and DAH characterized the clip and the posters as tasteless and disgusting. The EU HIV/AIDS Civil Society Forum (CSF) expressed the very same concerns in an open letter to the Federal Centre for Health Education in which it emphasized that “linking the risk of HIV infection to having sex with a mass murderer is immensely stigmatising of people with HIV“ (CSF, /CSF_on_AIDS_campaign_in_ Ge r many_-_BZgA_let ter.pdf 03/12/09). Like AAAG and DAH it demanded an immediate stop of the campaign. Many foreign and international AIDS associations shared this position, e.g. UK’s National AIDS Trust ( NAT UK, 02/12/09) or France’s AIDES (Aides, 02/12/09). Thus, most of the established organisations holding hegemony over information policies on AIDS opposed the unconventional approach. However, some individual voices of the professional health sector in the USA embraced the controversial, shocking conception and argued that it is effective as it raises awareness for the issue (ABC News, sto ry?id= 8516276 02/12/09). But such positions formed a clear minority – the reactions as well as the media coverage were in general very negative.

3. A Failed Campaign? Limits of an Unconventional Communication Strategy

Despite its quite reasonable intentions the ‘AIDS is a Mass Murderer’ campaign failed completely. To draw broad attention the initiators and creators decided to act in a quasi Machiavellian manner: the end should justify all means. Causing controversial discussions should put AIDS back on the agendas of public discourses. However, the used media artefacts (the means) ultimately missed this aim and mainly provoked harsh reactions of disapproval. As a result ‘Regenbogen e.V.’ stopped the campaign; the official homepage – containing the video clip and the posters – is no longer available. Solely the advertising agency still stands behind their creations[8]. Exploring the issue from a media and cultural studies’ perspective reveals some of the problems and allows an explanation for the negative reception by the public:  Following Aristotle’s communication model for instance, this campaign i.e. its media content, puts the emphasis on pathos exclusively. It uses the polarising comparison of human mass murderers from history and the AIDS disease to evoke emotional reactions. Facts and arguments are not used; the creators wanted to let the pictures speak for themselves, aiming for the shock value alone. Thus, logos is here a less important aspect. This had fatal consequences for the reception of the campaign’s media artefacts as some important voices criticised the absence of real advises for individual AIDS prevention. Hence, substantiated arguments are of immense importance for dealing with serious topics. The relevance of ethos is mainly determined by the initiator i.e. the NGO ‘Regenbogen e.V.’ In Germany the organisation is known for its social work concerning homosexuals. But the recognition as a serious and altruistic group did not contribute to a broader acceptance of the campaign. Instead it is assumable that ‘Regebogen e.V.’ suffered severe damage to its reputation and lost cultural capital. So, using extreme media content – which  can be perceived as unethical by parts of society – might  put a NGO in a very vulnerable position, as it can easily disappoint the moral expectations of the public. Outside the national borders the NGO is less noted; in the international context it seems to be more important that an AIDS campaign using Hitler originated from Germany. Thus, the creators grossly underestimated cultural and ethical sensibilities in various dimensions.

The radical concept of the media artefacts thereby differs significantly from the mainstream, i.e. the hegemony of less provoking, more factual ads and information programmes. But it falls short in the attempt to break the domination of the established AIDS organisations, which mainly define the discourse on the issue. Applying the theory of the circuit of culture, the hegemonic powers in the discourse on AIDS[9] could be described as the determining factors of regulation – the moment, which “comprises control on cultural activity” (Curtin 2006: 38); as the named organisations used their cultural capital and political weight to block the campaign, they regulated the cultural activity inside the discourse. ‘Regenbogen e.V.’ and ‘das comitee’ should have considered the possible influence of more powerful organisations on the public opinion in the planning process of their communication strategy. The main reason for the refusal is based on the representation of the disease and the patients. One of the most problematic aspects is thereby the construction of a certain identity[10] of HIV carriers, whether unintended or not: It puts them on the same level as the mass murderers, depicting them as the source of the problem. Ultimately, the campaign contributes – contrary to the initiators intentions – to a negative image of HIV carriers, which has been constructed in media[11] for a long time. Further, the example shows that the context determines the limits of creativity: the use of historical figures may not cause indignation in less serious contexts[12] but here this ‘stylistic device’ is the main reason for rejection. The chosen despots are reduced to mere symbols depicting death; the only relation to historical facts is the aspect of mass murder – the actual historical context is largely ignored. This was generally read as a ridicule of the victims of the Nazi regime, Stalinism and the military dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, women are depicted as sexual objects, completely helpless in the face of the male aggressor – so gendering can be added to the list of debatable aspects and problems of representation. In the end numerous groups felt offended by the content. Hence, there are still certain (ethical) restrictions to the idea of anything goes.

4. Conclusion

The examination of the chosen media artefacts highlighted different dimensions that need to be considered in the process of planning and realising a communication strategy. The factors can range from cultural, ethical and discursive to media political aspects. An imbalanced conception aiming for the shock value alone can cause various problems. It remains to be proven if such an approach really helps to inform about a specific issue. In this case it lead to heated but short living discussions, which shifted the focus away from the actual subject. Arousing broad attention by using drastic means does not necessarily lead to sustained public interest and a continuous examination of a social problem. To serve these goals an appropriate communication strategy would have to be more complex, paying logos the same attention as pathos. Most importantly: the construction of proper representations would demand a more elaborate planning.

List of References

ABC News, (02/12/09) (05/10/09)

Action Against AIDS Germany, aktuell/datum /2009/09/11 /reaction -of-the -bzga -to-the-csf-letter-about-the-aids-is-a-mass-murderer/ (06/10/09)

AIDES, (02/12/09).

BBC News, 1779480. stm (02/12/09)

BBC News, (02/12/09)

Bild Online (06/10/09)

BR Online (04/10/09)

Civil Society Forum, /CSFonAIDScampaigninGermany-BZgAletter.pdf (03/12/09)

Curtin, D. (2006), (03/12/09)

Das Comitee (06/10/09)

Deutsche AIDS Stiftung (05/10/09)

DNA Read the World, (06/10/09)

Fiedler, L. (1968) ‚Cross the Border – Close the Gap’, in: W. Welsch, ed. Wege aus der Moderne. Schlüsseltexte der Postmoderne-Diskussion. Berlin: Akademieverlag.

Guardian Online (05/10/09)

Griffin, G. (2000) Representations of HIV and AIDS. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Hall, S. (2000) ‚Who needs identity’? in J. Evans / P. Redman eds. Identity: a Reader. London: Sage.

Kitzinger, J. (1998) ‘ Media Impact on Public Beliefs about AIDS’, Miller, D. / Kitzinger, J. / Williams, K. / Beharell, P. (eds.) The Circuit of Communication. Media Strategies, Representation and Audience Reception in the AIDS Crisis. London: Sage.

National AIDS Trust, (02/12/09)

Regenbogen e.V., (06/10/09)

Schreckenberg, E. (1998) ‚Was ist postmodernes Kino? Versuch einer kurzen Antwort auf eine schwierige Frage’, in D. Bordwell et al., eds. Die Filmgespenster der Postmoderne. Frankfurt a.M.: Verlag der Autoren.

[1] To the postmodernist idea of plurality in different media/art sectors see for instance Fiedler 1968, Lehmann 1999, Schreckenberg 1998.

[2] E.g. the infamous Benetton advertising campaigns: (06/10/09)

[3] Regenbogen e.V. is a German association of homosexuals

[4] Griffin (2000) provides a in-depth discussion on the representation of AIDS / HIV in the media.

[5] These are more deads than in World War 1.

[6] A radio ad was also produced, but it was less relevant fort he reactions and follow-up discussions on the issue.

[7] Mainly in press and the Internet e.g.;;,1518,647497,00.html; (all 06/10/09)

[8] Hence, the media artefacts are still accessible on their official homepage ( das comitee 02/12/09).

[9] AAAG, DAH, NAT, AIDES etc.

[10] On the complex relation between identity, ideology, discourse and the media see e.g. Hall 2000.

[11] For a detailed discussion on the media impact on public beliefs about AIDS, especially on stereotypes and myths see Kitzinger 1998: 174 – 192.

[12] For instance in a commercial for a car produced by Renault; here a wide range of historical figures from Fidel Castro to Karl Marx are used in an advertising clip: 06/10/09


Author: Dr. Dennis Nguyen

Media and Communications Researcher with particular interest in online media, transnational discourses, crisis communication, public sphere theory, and empirical methods.

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