History of Medicine
When HIV and AIDS first emerged in the United States more than twenty years ago, conflicting reports and theories about transmission fostered an epidemic of fear and prejudice. Early press coverage, for example, frequently associated HIV/AIDS exclusively with homosexuals and intravenous drug users, despite the fact that as early as 1982 AIDS-related diseases began turning up in children and transfusion recipients. Since very little was known about transmission, public anxiety continued to grow. Government and non-government organizations responded by coordinating educational and informational campaigns using a variety of media and messages. In an increasingly visual modern culture, public health advertisements combined images and text to present an integrated message about a catastrophe that would affect us all. Posters, billboards, and print ads raised awareness, encouraged prevention strategies, and helped convince people that they should be personally concerned with the burgeoning epidemic. While many early posters targeted the fear surrounding AIDS by offering simple facts about transmission, others challenged predominant notions about at-risk populations.
Public health departments across the country established educational programs much later than voluntary organizations. It was not until 1987, for example, that the Illinois Department of Public Health created a special AIDS section to coordinate the state's response to the disease, with $2.3 million earmarked for AIDS prevention and education programs aimed at physicians, drug users, and the general public. The poster to the left is designed to assuage fears about the possibility of casual transmission by depicting "safe" behaviors in the same way that other infectious disease campaigns modeled proper preventive behaviors. The viewer is told that handshakes at the office, eating at the local diner, using a public bathroom, and opening an average door are "safe" activities. While challenging misconceptions about spread of the disease, the poster fails to make any distinction between the virus of HIV, discovered in 1983, and its symptomatic manifestation with AIDS.
The poster to the right is the result of a collaborative effort between the California Medical Association, public health officials, and community outreach programs. While the visually neutral subject, an unidentified glass, has no clear meaning independent of the text, the message here, as in the poster above, is designed to address the unfounded fears about transmission in general. The "Fight Fear with the Facts" campaign began in 1987 as a media-intensive program focusing on educating the general public, not specifically high-risk groups. Designed to increase awareness and understanding about AIDS, the campaign objectives included presenting the facts, reducing fear, refuting misconceptions, and directing the audience to additional information sources.
These two posters represent a common didactic and informative approach to AIDS educational posters that does not use images to supplement text. Their respective content and approach, however, are dramatically different. The poster on the left from the Texas AIDSLINE makes reference to a metaphor taken from Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in the mid-1980s. Koop and other public health educators suggested that in terms of the epidemiology of AIDS, having sex with someone was like having sex with all of their previous partners. At a moment when the dangers of promiscuous sex were being emphasized, this metaphor had the power to even invoke fear of serial monogamy. The poster on the right, meanwhile, illustrates a traditional information-based preventive effort that focuses on transmission without providing any explicit information. The viewer is directed to "Get the facts," yet the poster itself only vaguely refers to "a few ways" AIDS can be transmitted, suggesting, "We know what those ways are." The poster proposes, "We can all learn how to prevent AIDS," but fails to begin that process.
This poster from the Milwaukee AIDS Project appropriates the format of a standard vision test to grab the viewer's attention before he or she can identify the subject. This is a different kind of test, laid out on torn, wrinkled paper and posted on a dimly lighted wall. The viewer is instructed to, "Take this vision test." Why? The imagery suggests that the information on the poster has been neglected or obscured -- it may have been torn down, thrown away, and then put back. As the message becomes more solemn it is also harder and harder to read, figuratively suggesting that the closer you look at the threat presented by HIV/AIDS the more distressing the conclusions. Designed to warn and inform, the poster relies on statistics to alert the reader to the future threat of HIV transmission and AIDS-related illnesses -- a threat that may have become obscured by false confidence or misinformation.
This poster from a community outreach project, the AIDS Resource Center in Dallas, exploits the predominant public fear of AIDS. In the photograph, a man on a darkened urban street is unknowingly stalked by an anonymous specter representing the disease. When isolated from the text, the image elicits anxiety from the viewer -- a man is threatened and there seems to be nothing to prevent an imminent attack. There is also an implicit connection between the urban setting and the disease. When read along with the headline, however, the poster announces that the viewer could be naively harboring an equally dangerous killer. The accusatory tone, implying individual responsibility, is in sharp contrast with the textual argument that the only way to fight AIDS is through “compassion, common sense, and information.”