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Surviving & Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture

Fear Mongering

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As AIDS became a more widespread concern, public health officials and government agencies felt an increasingly urgent need to encourage people to protect themselves and their partners. Many state and local AIDS organizations tried to exert pressure on audiences using fear to prompt behavioral change, particularly among White heterosexuals who did not consider themselves at risk. Designed as an alternative to safer-sex campaigns, which highlighted pleasure and encouraged readers to rethink sexual practices in the age of AIDS, these advertisements shared a common visual and verbal language of gruesome death without providing information about how to prevent it. While a few emphasized the necessity of condom use or warned against sharing needles, most simply told readers to “get the facts” without providing substantive information. Often the fear came in an anti-sex form, such as, “Every time you sleep with someone, you’re risking your life.” In all cases, the campaigns harnessed fear to force people to acknowledge AIDS, but often omitted the helpful public health information about strategies citizens could use to protect themselves.