Australian public health campaigns are rarely discussed without reference to the Grim Reaper commercial. In the late 80s, the National Advisory Committee on AIDS released a series of shock ads: one with a baby-faced Russell Crowe playing Russian roulette in a drug den, another with some amusingly awkward condom conversations. The most memorable one had the Reaper ten-pin-bowling over people and dire data delivered in a doomsday register.
Like the torrent of Transport Accident Commission ads that followed, the Grim Reaper ad presented a ‘scared straight’ message: AIDS or drink-driving or speeding are all gonna kill ya so we need to be suitably scared.
Calls for a Grim Reaper redux were first voiced during the early days of Melbourne’s mask mandate. The theory seemingly, was that mask-resisters need to be frightened into behaviour change; that the return of the Reaper would be the key to our success!
Instead of the ghosts of Pandemic Future however, we got beloved Australian film and TV characters gently asking us to cover our orifices. We didn’t offer the Reaper a contract then and I doubt there’s merit doing it today.
I was seven-years-old when the Reaper ad aired. Like my other bogeymen from that time—Victoria’s ‘Mr Cruel’ and Pennywise—I remain at least a little haunted by AIDS and kidnappers and killer clowns.
To think however, that harnessing what ‘worked’ with the Reaper—and I use ‘worked’ cautiously because measuring effectiveness here beyond terror is fraught—will work to tackle vaccines is misguided.
We’ve been living around the COVID horror show for well over a year. I don’t remember a single day since March 2020 when I’ve not heard the word COVID or been exposed to some sombre statistic. For over a year we’ve been living in or around a nightmare that has killed three million people and impacted the lives of incalculable others. What 30 second commercial has the capacity to scare us more than reality already has?
Our media consumption is also entirely different today. In 1987 there was one TV in our home and it was in the loungeroom. It was the set we all watched. My brother and I still have verbatim recall of ads from that era. My toddler nephews however, won’t ever watch a recorded-off-TV copy of Willy Wonka and have 30-year-old Pizza Hut commercials committed to memory. Not sad as much as just the reality of streamed content on personal devices rather than the fireplace-set consumption of my childhood.
The NACAID television ads of the 1980s not only presented a generic message to entire households, but assumed a relatively homogenous audience with little to no knowledge of a new and deadly virus. This is not our world in 2021. Today we have people watching different programs in different ways who are unlikely to be persuaded by the same messages or the same messengers. We also have no shortage of information coming at us from every direction: a situation that any marketing strategy has to slash through.
To craft an effective public health campaign, we need to focus on the ‘what’. What are we wanting to communicate? When we look at the deplorable rates of vaccination in Australia, we absolutely have a serious problem. I suspect however, that this is much less an issue of vaccine-reluctance and more so connected to an incompetent roll-out and, more recently, complicated issues of eligibility. That so many Australians aren’t vaccinated isn’t a case of people sitting around just waiting for a Barnes/Freeman/Barty/Hemsworth brother to tell us to get jabbed. It’s an interesting conversation to debate who Australia’s Dolly Parton is, sure, but it’d be an expensive and indulgent strategy.
So we’re left tackling the vaccine hesitant, the vaccine hostile and, alas, also the Qanon-Magna-Carta-Bunnings nutjobs. And here’s where it gets truly complicated. Be they anti all vaccinations, specifically fearful of Astra-Zeneca blood clots, worried about Bill Gates’ microchips, averse to Big Government, or believers in their body being a chemical-free sacred temple, these people are extremely unlikely to be effectively targeted through a commercial. Their reasons for vaccine reluctance are diverse, and they are unlikely to be persuaded by Dr Karl or Ernie Dingo telling them to shut up and stick out their arm.
A single commercial won’t work in 2021. In fact, we need to decentralise TV from this discussion altogether: television after all, isn’t where the hesitant and hostile are getting their ‘information’. Television isn’t where microchip fake news is flourishing.
Multiple messages are needed and these messages must meet people where they’re at: both psychologically as well as geographically in the places they dwell, online and off. We also need to do this with the awareness that educating and, for some people deprogramming, is the work of experts and not black cloaks and scythes.
Lauren Rosewarne is an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne. Her latest book—Why We Remake: The Politics, Economics and Emotions of Film and TV Remakes—was released in 2020.