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AIDS awareness campaign that used Hitler lookalike provokes anger and support

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b3793 (Published 15 September 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3793
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. 1Hamburg

    A video advertisement made in Germany depicting a naked and grinning Adolf Hitler having sex with a woman has been strongly criticised around the world by many—but not all—experts on HIV and AIDS as the wrong approach to increase awareness of the disease.

    The video and accompanying print advertisements and posters, which also feature the dictators Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin, carry the slogan: “AIDS is a mass murderer.” The campaign was commissioned by Regenbogen, an AIDS awareness group that believes that public concern about HIV and AIDS is diminishing, even while the number of infections and deaths continues to rise.

    On the campaign website Regenbogen, whose name means rainbow, explains: “The campaign is designed to shake people up, to bring the topic of AIDS back to centre stage, and to reverse the trend of unprotected sexual intercourse.”

    The 45 second video begins with an unidentifiable man and woman entering a dimly lit apartment and beginning to fondle each other. They peel off their clothes and end up in bed. At the end of the commercial the still anonymous man, sprawled over the woman, lifts his head to reveal the panting and grinning face of Hitler. The campaign slogan then appears, followed by the message “Protect yourself!” and finally the campaign’s web address (www.aids-is-a-mass-murderer.com/).

    The advertisement has provoked widespread outrage in Germany, which until recent years has strenuously avoided artistic likenesses of Hitler. Carsten Schatz, board member of the Berlin based AIDS awareness group German Aids Assistance, said, “This disgusting spot with an Adolf Hitler imitator mocks all the victims [of the Nazis] and compares HIV positive people to mass murderers.” He said that, rather then helping, the campaign harms HIV prevention work. He added that the campaign does not tell people how to protect against HIV transmission and is totally inappropriate for teenagers.

    Mr Schatz has strong support in London. Deborah Jack, chief executive of the UK AIDS charity the National AIDS Trust, said, “It is over the top, misleading, and harmful. Effective public health campaigns can sometimes use shock tactics well—but irresponsible and incredible statements only mean that in the end people stop listening.”

    Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called the advertising campaign “a defamation and mockery” of Nazi victims, who included homosexuals.

    Dirk Silz, managing director of Das Comitee, the Hamburg agency that conceived the idea and produced the campaign, told the BMJ that Regenbogen had originally worked with other agencies to come up with a powerful campaign. “But their ideas were too boring,” he said. “Regenbogen asked us to make something with more impact.”

    Mr Silz says that the campaign has already been successful in raising awareness of the continuing risk of HIV infection. “Think about it: what is wrong about this campaign?” he asks. “If people donate money, then it is good, and who can complain?” He added: “We have lots of emails from around the world saying, ‘Great. Keep going.’”

    He thinks that some groups criticising the campaign are doing so simply because the advertisement is so powerfully effective. “It takes attention away from them,” he said. He noted that one group, German Aids Assistance, included donation information and bank account numbers at the bottom of a press release attacking the Hitler advertisement.

    Amir Afkhami, assistant professor at the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University in Washington, DC, is one supporter of the Hitler campaign, saying that there had been “an increasing lack of concern” about HIV infection in recent years, partly because better treatment was allowing infected people to live longer.

    This sense of complacency was apparent in a recent study of the heterosexual population of Washington, DC, which indicated that many people “believe they are not at risk for HIV despite having multiple partners and engaging in unprotected sex,” Professor Afkhami said.

    “This indicates the inadequacy of public awareness and the need [to stop] a ‘business as usual’ approach to raising awareness on HIV issues.” He added that the Hitler video “conveys the subtle yet effective message that heterosexual couples should be mindful.”

    When the campaign was unveiled in the first week of September, Regenbogen officials said that the video would begin airing soon on German television and in cinemas. However, one of Germany’s major private broadcasters, RTL, has announced that it would not air the advertisement because of the “entire context”—the use of Hitler’s image and the nudity and sexual content.

    Mr Silz confirmed that most of Germany’s dozen or so national broadcasters had declined to air the Hitler advertisement. “It’s too hot for them,” he said.

    However, three national broadcasters have given informal agreements to begin airing the advertisements free of charge, as a public service, after 9 pm from 16 September, Mr Silz said.

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3793

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