History of Medicine
Different aims, messages, and strategies have strongly influenced the content and design of AIDS posters that address specific target groups. Many early AIDS prevention messages, for example, were aimed heavily at the white gay male community and intravenous drug users of all colors. While some created an atmosphere for open discussion or invite more participation from observers, others attempted to condemn or inspire fear. Because people understand pictures in different ways (depending on environment, experience, education, and beliefs) and sexual behavior is deeply rooted in culture and tradition, messages to raise awareness and encourage preventive behavior varied depending on the intended audience. Regardless of their differences, these posters are meaningful to viewers because they frequently draw on images from popular culture and express the living habits of people. As such, the messages in these posters reveal how public health educators and activists see themselves and their audiences, and how they conceptualize disease and define normal behavior.
Developed by the Red Hot Organization, a leading international organization dedicated to fighting AIDS through popular culture, the poster to the right anticipates a specific audience, featuring images of homosexual men in an intimate pose. Recognizing that traditional health education methods were frequently ineffective, the creators of this poster use the combination of visual and textual messages to normalize and eroticize safe sex. The carefully positioned subjects in the photographs are provocative and instructional -- the educational goal is to influence individuals to adopt specific behaviors. The voyeuristic presentation works in conjunction with the message: sex can be enjoyable and safe for homosexual men.
Early reports on transmission identified shared hypodermic needles as primary vectors. As a result, many AIDS posters targeted intravenous drug-users. While some of these posters overtly reflected either the didactic quality or moral message of early AIDS posters, this powerful piece from Australia's National Advisory Committee's "grim reaper" campaign appropriately conveys the gravity of the subject. Even more important than the text, the morbid image of a skeletal hand clutching a needle sends a chilling message that associates the behavior with death, imagery also used in public health campaigns against infectious disease and smoking.
These posters illustrate two common shifts in the themes of HIV/AIDS posters in the late 1980s and early 1990s: (1) targeting specific racial or ethnic communities by using different photographic subjects to personalize the disease; and (2) juxtaposing text and image to dispel myths about at-risk populations. The three children with similarly uneasy expressions could easily be advertising cough medicine or breakfast cereal. The viewer would likely be surprised to learn from the text that this is a public service ad for HIV/AIDS education. By using the images of attentive children, the posters challenge parents to overcome existing taboos, suggesting they have a responsibility to educate their children about HIV/AIDS. The message also normalizes the controversial advice offered by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in his report on HIV/AIDS issued in 1986, which suggested that since education was the best and only strategy of prevention, and since HIV/AIDS was spread primarily through sex, school children should receive sex education. In this context, the expectant faces on the children alongside the imploring passage suggest that parents have a moral duty to educate their children.
The poster to the right deftly targets parents by drawing on the iconic power of a Norman Rockwell painting -- a symbol of American family values. The poster was created by the AIDS Action Committee, a community-based organization of volunteers established in 1983 that provides support services for people living with AIDS and HIV, educates the public and health professionals, and promotes fair and effective policy at the city, state, and federal levels. Appealing to a sense of parental responsibility, and evoking a sense of nostalgia for a pre-AIDS world, the poster suggests that parents have a duty to inform their children, however resistant they may be to the subjects of disease, sexuality, and death.
The Centers for Disease Control established one of the first government services to respond to the public's questions about HIV/AIDS with the National AIDS Hotline in 1983, but the CDC did not establish a comprehensive educational campaign until 1989, due in part to the halting response of the Reagan administration to the AIDS epidemic. This poster was designed to appeal to teenagers and their parents with AIDS-related information, demonstrating a further move beyond earlier stigmatization of at-risk groups. It addresses misconceptions about AIDS by identifying with a unique set of age-related priorities and experiences. The image of the shadowed driver's license appeals to teenage sensibilities, while the message in the text suggests that teens are specifically at risk.
The attractive, athletic young man in the photograph to the left was not the typical image of someone with AIDS in the late 1980s. While the viewer may anticipate a message about sports or some other aspect of youth culture, the accompanying text in this poster provides a statement about the threat of AIDS associated with drug use. This type of image helped challenge prevailing stereotypes of drug users and at-risk populations for AIDS.
The poster to the right was inspired by the CDC's "Talk About AIDS" campaign designed to encourage dialogue about the disease in order to foster understanding and greater awareness among the general population. The image of a heartfelt conversation between a mother and teenage daughter provides a normative representation of the behaviors advocated in the text -- common myths are addressed and parents are provided with specific instructions about what to do and say to their children.
These posters were part of a wider campaign conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services beginning in 1989, which covered various aspects of HIV/AIDS education. These photographic subjects are designed to reflect the target audience for the posters. Like many other public health posters, the photographic subject is alternated to speak to specific racial groups. The women themselves speak to other women and tell them about their role in avoiding high-risk behaviors and making responsible decisions. The combination of image and text produces an ambiguous message, however, as the viewer is left to reconcile the tension between empowerment and blame. The posters on the left place the blame on the infecting man, whereas the images in the poster to the right place the burden on the women. The textual message combined with the posture and pose of the women also address a common tendency to be accommodating in relationships, and warn them that their partners won't always be looking out for their best interests, especially where sex is concerned. They say, "Don't trust him -- look after yourself!"
This poster is one of a series produced by Clement Communications, a public relations company that researches, creates, publishes, and distributes programs and materials to help organizations communicate with their intended audience. Designed to appeal to specific racial groups, each poster in the series features a different child. Although the child in the photograph appears to be happy and healthy, we learn from the message that her mother has given her AIDS. We see an emotional appeal to women -- African-American women in this case -- which along with the text suggests they have a responsibility beyond themselves to be tested for AIDS. The juxtaposing of text and image creates a message that works against viewer expectations, offering a particularly striking contrast to the image of the skeletal hand of the grim reaper in the poster above.
The message in the poster to the right is tailored to reach another specific group: heterosexual women who don't believe they are at risk for AIDS. The poster addresses two public health issues simultaneously: teen pregnancy and AIDS. Like many posters aimed at convincing people that they should be personally concerned with AIDS, the message is short but powerful: "AIDS is a killer. Protect Yourself." When combined with the image, the directive allows the viewer to relate to the negative consequences of inaction on a personal level. Here is a woman who from ignorance made a mistake that the viewer could also make. The sober expression of a woman standing in partial shadow evokes a sense of shame. The message is a confessional laden with guilt and regret.
The poster to the left is part of the "Famous Last Words" campaign developed in the late 1980s by the People of Color Against AIDS (PCAAN), a community-based advocacy group that provided comprehensive AIDS/HIV education and prevention models for all communities of color. Responding to common beliefs that AIDS was not a threat to minority communities, PCAAN encouraged individuals to overcome false assumptions while adopting behaviors based on the information provided. The poster challenges the reactionary rhetoric associated with stereotyping by disparaging the association of AIDS with the "white man." The presentation starkly reminds the viewer of the consequences of this misconception by suggesting these are "famous last words."