An Unhappy 25th on World AIDS Day

Disease May Be Gone From Public Service Announcements, but Still a Lethal Killer

By Published on .

Jeff McElhaney
Jeff McElhaney
So you've lived to see the ripe old age of 25, my old acquaintance.

I strolled the aisles of a greeting-card store, searching for the perfectly worded tribute to mark this momentous, quarter-century milestone of yours. I came up dry. Nothing quite summed up exactly how I feel about you after all this time.

As you may or may not have noticed, since 1985 I've made your demise a personal vendetta of mine: By creating 100-plus public-service ads warning everyone -- from gays and straights to blacks and whites to IV drug users -- about letting you into their lives.

So it only seems fitting that I pen something homemade and heartfelt on this, your special day, World AIDS Day 2009.

World AIDS Day 2009Enlarge

Now what is it we're celebrating this year? Your birthday? That hardly seems appropriate, considering how many billions of birthdays that will never again be celebrated thanks to your more than 25 years of death and destruction on this planet. Or perhaps you'd have us commemorate your 25th anniversary this year instead. What's the proper precious metal for that again? If only the medical world announced a silver bullet of a cure or vaccine today to joyously ring in that occasion.

By my count, AIDS, you're older than you claim: You were first reported to the U.S Centers for Disease Control in 1981 after five gay men in Los Angeles came down with a rare form of pneumonia. When several more gay men developed the even rarer Kaposi's sarcoma, the media labeled you GRID for "gay-related immune deficiency." Then the CDC showed a better sense of branding or humor or something and dubbed you "The 4H Disease" since you'd broadened your tastes to include not only homosexuals but Haitians, hemophiliacs and heroin users. But ambitious young microbe that you were, you expanded your demographic yet again, so the 4H moniker never stuck. (I don't know who was more relieved about that; the four H audiences in the acronym or the national 4-H youth organization.)

By 1983, the name AIDS for acquired immune deficiency syndrome started catching on -- but sadly, not as fast as people were catching you -- and in 1984 the retrovirus that causes you was finally identified and soon dubbed HIV (for human immunodeficiency virus).

I remember vividly when you and I first came face-to-face: I had just experienced my first male/male sexual encounter on a Friday night during my junior year at college. The following Monday evening I was blissfully shopping for groceries, and there you were in the checkout lane -- staring over at me from the cover of one of the big weekly newsmagazines, cooing, "The New Gay Cancer."

I wish I could say it was love at first sight, but it was pure unadulterated fright.

I graduated with an advertising degree the next year and interviewed with a student portfolio full of eager spec work for such hot, mid-'80s brands as MTV, Sony Walkman and these weird new devices called PCs.

My first job at a large, conservative Baltimore ad agency involved clients not even remotely similar or cool, but rather banks, insurance companies and ATM networks. I yearned to create ads for something -- anything -- that I could hold in my hand. Even if it was for a packaged good as slimy and unspeakable as a condom, your only known enemy, AIDS, then and now.

Even if it was for no pay (read: pro bono) for tiny community organizations that could barely afford to pay their phone bills let alone have marketing budgets.

Even if I did get reprimanded by my agency's management to keep their fine name off and out of the "issue" projects I felt compelled to labor over after hours. (They changed their tune, oh, about three Clios later.)

Of course, even after developing campaigns since the mid-'80s for some dozen or so organizations created in your name, it's been nearly five years since I've worked on any HIV/AIDS advertising. It's been five years since anyone asked me to.

Which strikes me as odd, if not worrying, because I know you're still thriving. An estimated nearly 35 million human beings are still playing host to you in this world, including 2 million children.

Yet I don't hear much about you anymore, and this disturbs me. Are gay men of a certain age not worth reminding about the dangers of AIDS anymore? Are gay men at all?

Despite your new, seemingly lower profile, you're still very much on the wrong side of the win-loss column: In 2008, 2.7 million humans became infected with HIV and 2 million more souls died by your doing.

What's worse, you seem to like living -- and leaving a wake of dying -- right here in my own backyard. In Washington, D.C., we have the highest rate of AIDS diagnoses in the country. Our HIV infection rates rival those of several African countries.

I do remember passing a bus shelter poster for AIDS the other day in my mostly black neighborhood, but I'll be damned if I recall what its message was. I had to go home and Google the national organization to grasp what the corporate, bland-looking ad was trying to convey, only to realize the group represented an exclusively black constituency. When I did AIDS work, it was the advertising that was segmented by target audience, not the AIDS orgs themselves.

But here on this, your 25th birthday, your sense of irony continues to be epic: Worldwide, half of all those who become infected with HIV do so before the age of 25.

What's worse, about the same number die before they turn 35.

If only you could suffer the same fate, AIDS.

What makes me most unhappy on this occasion is that this is the last sentence of your 25th birthday commemoration, not your eulogy.

Jeff McElhaney is creative partner at Brand-Aid Creative in Washington, D.C. An exhibition of 30 pieces of HIV/AIDS-related advertising he created since 1985 will be on display at Long View Gallery at 1234 9th Street, NW, in Washington through Dec. 31.
Most Popular