WELLCOME LIBRARY, LONDON
In 1985, 95 percent of Americans had heard of AIDS, and 47 percent admitted they would prefer to avoid HIV-positive people, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report. The following year, to promote the scientific knowledge detailed in the Surgeon General’s new report on the disease, the American Red Cross and the Ad Council began the first of many public-education campaigns, followed by the US government’s America Responds to AIDS effort, which lasted from 1987 until 1996.
Originally appearing in print ads, on billboards, and on public transportation, the posters—humble messengers of the multimedia campaign—serve today as reminders of how public understanding of the disease progressed. The earliest images fought misinformation about disease transmission. Later, the focus shifted from raising awareness to changing risky behavior by encouraging condom use and discouraging the sharing of hypodermic needles. Messaging also began to target specific groups—such as gay men and minority communities—that were hardest hit by the virus. For example, Australia’s Condoman character merged a masculine, muscled superhero with a safe-sex message to dispel the idea, common among young Aboriginal men, that condom use was unmanly.
Because they represent the key messages of the earliest eras of HIV/AIDS education, “these posters are classic,” says Seth Noar, a professor of health communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “[They] likely played a role in both increasing knowledge about HIV and then later trying to impact behavior,” he says, adding that it’s hard to imagine seeing similar posters—with what are now such obvious, well-known facts—these days.