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Hitler Imagery: A New Tactic In AIDS Prevention?

September 8, 2009

World AIDS Day is still three months away, but commercials designed to draw attention to the day (and HIV and AIDS in general) are already airing on television. And one particular ad is already generating controversy.

The Daily Telegraph reports that Regenbogen e.V., a German AIDS awareness organization, has developed a new campaign with the tagline “AIDS is a mass murderer.” They’ve produced a commercial, which will begin airing on late night German television this week, that uses Adolf Hitler imagery to drive its message. As one might expect, the commercial is already taking a considerable amount of heat.

(Trigger/NSFW Warning: The following description of the video is sexually graphic, and may be uncomfortable or triggering for some readers.)

I won’t post the video (if you’re curious to see it, it’s embedded in the above Daily Telegraph link), but here’s a pretty accurate description, via Jezebel:

So, picture a weirdly graphic film of a sexy woman having orgasmic, ecstatic, multi-position sex with a hard-bodied partner whose face we can’t see over her writhing limbs and erotically-flowing tendrils. It’s the kind of ad you wouldn’t want to watch with your parents in the room. (In Germany, the ad can only air after 9, to give you an idea.) And then, after an uncomfortably long few moments of that, the man raises his face, and it’s a a demonically-leering guy who doesn’t really look like Hitler but is obviously supposed to be Hitler. While thrusting, mind you. And then the words: “AIDS is a mass murderer. Protect yourself!” (And yes, in case you’re wondering: totally NSFW.)

I don’t think there’s any disagreement that AIDS is a horrifying disease, and it makes sense for AIDS prevention ads to reflect that reality. This commercial is certainly shocking. As Queerty points out, references to Hitler are even more taboo in Germany than they are in the United States, with explicit public use of imagery like swastikas being illegal, so using a Hitler look-alike in a German advertisement is a pretty bold move. And, arguably, the AIDS epidemic is akin to genocide, particularly in the number of people it has killed around the world, so the comparison isn’t as completely far-fetched as, say, Rush Limbaugh’s recent statement about President Obama.

That being said, I still think this ad is pushing the envelope way too far. For shock value to have any merit, it needs to actually say something. I’m not sure this commercial actually does.

From the Daily Telegraph:

The commercial has been released to coincide with 2009 World Aids Day but established HIV/Aids charities have distanced themselves from its message, saying that it could make life more difficult for sufferers.

“Of course there are many HIV organisations that run their own campaigns, however I think the advert is incredibly stigmatising to people living with HIV who already face much stigma and discrimination due to ignorance about the virus,” a spokeswoman for the National AIDS Trust, which co-ordinates World Aids Day in Britain, said.

“On top of this it fails to provide any kind of actual prevention message (e.g. use a condom) and may deter people to come forward for testing.”

Because the commercial relies entirely on shock value and not at all on facts or education, such as explicitly promoting condom use or regular STI testing, it’s not actually promoting AIDS prevention. Scaring an audience is one thing, but educating them about safe sex is something else entirely. And what good are gimmicks if they lack substance?

What are your thoughts? Can an ad campaign like this truly make a difference in the fight against AIDS, or is it just another shallow ploy to shock audiences and increase ratings?

  1. Emily permalink*
    September 8, 2009 1:44 pm

    Wow (with mouth dropped). This is shocking on so many levels. First of all, while I have not seen the commercial, but based off of the description from Jezebel, it is assuming that only through penis to vagina penetration does one contract HIV. It’s also comparing Hitler as any person who gives another person HIV. I feel like that is not only inappropriate and offensive, but incorrect. Many people who have HIV don’t know that they have HIV. I’m wondering if they mis-compared Hitler…did they mean to compare him to HIV, or the person who transfer HIV to another person?

    In. Shock.

    • Carrie permalink
      September 8, 2009 3:01 pm

      You make a really good point. While an AIDS-as-Hitler comparison is a little much, it’s far more accurate than a Person With AIDS-as-Hitler comparison. And when you watch the video (which I did, and the Jezebel description is spot-on), it does appear that the comparison is really between Hitler and a person who transfers HIV to someone else. Which, as you point out, is wildly inaccurate.

  2. September 13, 2009 11:03 am

    I agree with you and I’d go further. Not only does the ad go “too far” (and we already know that scare tactics are not effective in promoting lasting behavioural change), it gets it all wrong. Nazism and the global HIV epidemic have nothing in common and suggesting the opposite is dangerous. I wrote about this myself in a bit more detail here:

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